Plunket Shield final round: Wellington Firebirds 227 all out in 81.1 overs (Murdoch 35, Patel 56; Wheeler 3-40) and 439/7 declared in 117 overs (Papps 82, Murdoch 112, Pollard 68, Woodcock 55, Taylor 34 on first-class debut) drew with the Devon Hotel Central Stags 355 all out in 115 overs (Hay 51, Young 78, Bracewell 44, Wheeler 55 not out; Arnel 4-78) and 86/1 in 37 overs (Worker 39, Smith 30 not out) at McLean Park, Napier
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Resuming at 307/4, Luke Woodcock marked his recall to the Firebirds side with a half-century, the veteran spinning allrounder helping debutant Matt Taylor get to a brisk 34, almost entirely composed in boundaries, before Seth Rance took out Taylor for the second time in the match.
Michael Pollard's account had already been stopped on 68, but the Firebirds were in a healthy position, and declared shortly before lunch at 439/7, setting the Devon Hotel Central Stags a target of 312 in just over two sessions.
The Stags got through the three overs before the break unscathed, needing exactly 300 from the last two remaining sessions in the season to finish with a win. But after a lively enough beginning, George Worker's wicket would prove the last of the summer as Ben Smith and Greg Hay began playing out maidens, an early finish seemingly now looking more alluring than gunning for one last win. A rare five penalty runs had interrupted the ennui when the ball hit the fielding helmet, but by mid-afternoon both teams had had enough, the match called a draw at tea when the Stags had inched to 86/1.
After a season of glorious cricket weather facilitating numerous outrights, the last act of the 2014/15 domestic cricket season was done.
The Stags' tailend torrent at McLean Park carried on for another seven overs as Andy Mathieson chalked up a career high score of 27. With Ben Wheeler, he had also busted the 10th wicket record for the Stags against the Firebirds, one that had been set by Dave Leonard and Ali Alcock in the 1992/93 summer. Now it stands at 55, Brent Arnel finally having got one through Mathieson for his fourth wicket, restricting the Stags to 355 and a 128-run lead.
But the batting highlight of the day would belong to the Firebirds as Stephen Murdoch powered to his eighth first-class century, off just 124 balls, including two sixes and 16 boundaries. Shortly after raising his bat, the first drop also became the highest run-scorer in any first-class season for the Wellington Firebirds, breaking the mark of 988 that had been set by teammate Luke Woodcock in the 2009/10 summer. Murdoch's innings finished just two runs short of making 1000 runs in a first-class season.
Earlier, opener Michael Papps had threatened to post another hundred of his own before being stopped on 82, caught behind off Mathieson. Kruger van Wyk had gloved a catch off Deepak Joon already and now had the Central Stags record for most first-class catches in a season.
Having shared a 122-run stand with Murdoch and a short stint of 12 with Tom Blundell, Michael Pollard was unbeaten on 60 at stumps, the Firebirds 307/4 for a lead of 179 with one day remaining.
The Devon Hotel Central Stags set off with nine wickets in hand in the McLean Park sunshine, Greg Hay posting a half-century shortly before Brent Arnel picked him up caught. It was the wily Arnel's third straight wicket, having had opener Ben Smith caught behind for 23 in the sixth over of the morning.
Will Young picked up the baton, and picked out the boundary rope 10 times en route to his classy 78, the chase looking comfortable. Skipper Kruger van Wyk posted the team 200 as he collected a couple off Jeetan Patel, but he was fresh at the crease with Doug Bracewell, now, after the Stags had suddenly slid from five to seven down. Two wickets had gone in three balls — Young caught by the recalled Luke Woodcock off Patel, then Tom Bruce (24) nicking Andy McKay behind next over, just as overhauling the first innings target had seemed a doddle.
Number eleven Andy Mathieson's batting stocks continued their upward climb as he tonked three boundaries off a single McKay over to get himself going, Ben Wheeler already on 34 when they had teamed up for the last stand.
Again, two wickets had gone too quickly. Wheeler had just lost two partners in the space of two overs, so it was light relief in the middle as much as it was frustration for the Firebirds' attack, looking to mop up quickly.
The Stags ended the day with a 90-run lead at 342/9: maximum bowling bonus points for the Firebirds, but an empty reward as other teams now jostled for outrights and the title further north. One last win at McLean Park was now all about team pride. Wheeler was unbeaten at stumps on 45, Mathieson 24, requiring just one more run to equal his first-class career best.
The resurgent Wellington Firebirds needed absolutely everything to go their way to keep in contention for the Plunket Shield, but were bowled out for 227 in the first innings by the bottom-placed Devon Hotel Central Stags for none of the four batting bonus points that had been on offer.
Continuing a strong return from injury, Stags paceman Ben Wheeler made the early breakthroughs for his team, taking care of both form openers, Deepak Joon and Michael Papps, after they had been sent in — Papps captaining the Firebirds in James Franklin's absence.
Stephen Murdoch undertook the job of recovering the start, and had reached 35 in almost 100 minutes when Doug Bracewell triggered a mini-collapse by getting Murdoch's partner at the crease, Michael Pollard, caught behind. Three wickets falling in the space of three overs, new man Tom Blundell lasted five deliveries before being run out, then Murdoch himself fell to Bracewell as the Firebirds' position nosedived from 92/2 to 103/5.
At tea the Firebirds were 152/7, Jeetan Patel just get going on 10, alongside Matt McEwan. Ultimately Patel top-scored with a handy rearguard 56, the last to fall as Wheeler closed the innings with his third strike for the day. The Stags batted for 15 overs before stumps, but it was enough for the Firebirds to continue George Worker's late season misery as he was bowled by Brent Arnel, the hosts 28/1 at the close.