Plunket Shield round seven: Devon Hotel Central Stags 229 all out in 71.3 overs (Worker 52, Hay 43, Young 65; McEwan 5-87) and 252 all out in 105 overs (Young 39, Bruce 80, van Wyk 56 not out; Arnel 6-52, Patel 3-94) lost to the Wellington Firebirds, 242 all out in 72.4 overs (Papps 70, Murdoch 68; Mathieson 4-55) and 240/7 in 67.4 overs (Joon 50, Murdoch 78, Pollard 40, Blundell 33; Worker 2-7) by three wickets at Pukekura Park, New Plymouth
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As Stephen Murdoch slapped Andy Mathieson for a second boundary in the over, the Wellington Firebirds' target shrunk to 150 midway through the morning session. The Devon Hotel Central Stags had desperately needed early breakthroughs, but the Firebirds could afford to be choosy as they picked away at their target with oceans of time.
Murdoch posted his 88-ball half-century — his second of the match — and the Firebirds 100 in one swoop with a second consecutive boundary off Ben Wheeler: just 139 more now required. Then former Indian first-class player Deepak Joon followed suit with his second Plunket Shield half-century for the Firebirds as the pair began to drive it home.
Joon had broken out with a six off Ajaz Patel, but the spinner struck back as Doug Bracewell took the catch to dismiss Joon on 50 exactly. By now Murdoch was on 70 and the Firebirds required 106, Michael Pollard the new man in just before lunch. But what should have been a cruise turned into a cliffhanger when notorious golden arm George Worker bowled Tom Blundell first ball, and then made it two wickets from three balls when he had Alecz Day caught for a duck: a double wicket maiden and suddenly the Firebirds were six down.
Ben Wheeler caught the fever and took out Jeetan Patel early in the following over, caught by Andy Mathieson, also for no score. The Firebirds still needed 14 to win, wickets were dropping like flies. Surely this wasn't going to turn into a cliffhanger?
Fortunately for the Firebirds they had a steadying hand still at the crease in Michael Pollard, but after a few jangled nerves it was their first innings bowling hero Matt McEwan who found one last boundary to finally reach the target.
The three-wicket victory was the Firebirds' second outright of the season, lifting them from the foot of the points table and ahead of the Stags and Volts into fourth, albeit with the Volts' game this round still in progress.
After a minor ground delay, nightwatchman Ajaz Patel's departure in the third over of the morning brought Tom Bruce to the middle to join Will Young.
At 55/4, the Taranaki pair faced a significant repair job to get the Stags back in the match and by drinks they'd cautiously picked their way to 93/4 en route to a 50-run partnership. Bruce brought up his half-century with a single off Jeetan Patel last ball before lunch, for an overall lead of 127; but now he'd been joined by his skipper Kruger van Wyk after the loss of Young in the back half of the session.
Bruce continued his confident debut season by top-scoring with 80, including two sixes, but after he fell it would be van Wyk who scrapped to add vital last runs. The Stags captain watched as Brent Arnel began carving through his late order on his way to a superb 6-52 off his 27 overs, taking out Doug Bracewell, Ben Wheeler Seth Rance in the space of eight overs to push the Stags to nine down.
Perhaps sensing an impending end, after three hours van Wyk suddenly larroped Arnel for a boundary and a six, in the space of three deliveries — the six bringing up his half-century on the last ball before tea.
Last man Andy Mathieson couldn't hold out too much longer, however, and after the break was caught behind, leaving van Wyk unbeaten on 56: now the Firebirds had a target, just 240 runs to win.
The Stags made a great start to the defence when Doug Bracewell bowled Michael Papps for just five runs, bringing Stephen Murdoch to the wicket in the third over before bad light stopped play for the day with the Firebirds 42/1.
It took just three balls this morning for the Firebirds to dismiss the Stags for their overnight score, Andy McKay taking the last wicket of Doug Bracewell.
In reply, Michael Papps attacked Bracewell's pace early and, after a spree of boundaries, with Deepak Joon pasted the Firebirds’ 50 on the scoreboard at cracking pace, inside 11 overs. By lunch, the Firebirds were just 119 runs behind on the first innings — but they’d lost both opening batsmen, after first Bracewell and then Andy Mathieson had each of their quarry caught behind in successive overs.
Papps had done his job well, though, motoring to 70 off 81 deliveries — Joon having played a far more sedate, supporting role for his 25. Stephen Murdoch and Michael Pollard were charged with building a partnership anew for the third wicket, but it had barely got underway after lunch before Seth Rance had Pollard's wicket, caught: 110/3.
Murdoch (68) quickly pressed on to crack his half-century at run-a-ball pace, but by tea the Firebirds had slipped to 217/8 and were in danger of failing to rein in the Stags' middling first innings total after all.
Murdoch had proved the key wicket as Ben Wheeler struck twice in quick succession. Tom Blundell turned away as partners came and went without settling into a partnership. The Firebirds had only just succeeded in matching the Stags' 229 when the ninth wicket fell, Brent Arnel and McKay stretching it out to a 13-run lead before Arnel became Mathieson's fourth and final victim of the innings.
The lively proceedings weren't over in the fast-moving match. Batting for the second time in a day, the Stags had a horror beginning as they lost three wickets late in the last session — spinner Jeetan Patel accounting for two of them, with the first session tomorrow likely to prove crucial to the Stags' fortunes, Will Young and nightwatchman Ajaz Patel at the wicket and their lead at stumps just 37 runs.
Just a day after Matt McEwan scored his first Wellington Firebirds contract — picking up the domestic contract left open by Grant Elliott's elevation to a BLACKCAPS retainer, the former Cantabrian celebrated with his first five-for for his new teammates, on a ground that's traditionally more beloved by batsmen.
It was just the burly 24-year-old's second first-class career five wicket bag in all and kept the Devon Hotel Central Stags in reasonable check after a weather-delayed start at their most picturesque home ground, the match having been transferred here after issues with Wellington's Karori Park.
The Stags had won the toss and unsurprisingly opted for a bat as the game got underway after lunch, George Worker relieved to take his first single off Brent Arnel after a pair in his previous outing, up north. The handsome driver soon got his bat working, clipping four boundaries off Arnel — and one more off McEwan for good measure — against the Firebirds' opening duo, but this time lost his partner David Meiring for a duck early.
Worker brushed off a short rain interruption to power to a half-century with another boundary off Arnel, taking the Stags to 83/1 with Greg Hay. But he was out soon after, the introduction of spin and Jeetan Patel luring him into a catch.
Will Young carried on the positive tone by thumping the first six of the innings off Patel, and glided to a half-century of his own, brought up with a boundary off McEwan. Unimpressed, the aggrieved bowler began to make his presence felt with a timely double breakthrough — getting the naturally aggressive Tom Bruce caught for just 26 on his home turf, and then the handy wicket of Taranaki's fellow son Young (65) in his next over.
Maidens began outnumbering the boundaries after tea as the Firebirds carried on some good pressure, McEwan then striking again by bowling the Stags' often stubborn skipper Kruger van Wyk for just eight runs. Now opening day was really swinging their way. Despite gathering over 200 runs on a shortened day, when bad light ended play it was fair to say day one hadn't gone ideally to script for the Stags, nine down with 229 on the board and three days in front of them.