Auckland Aces coach Mark O’Donnell has a saying that when Tarun Nethula bowls well in white-ball cricket, the Aces tend to win the game. At the Central Stags’ expense in their home 2018 Ford Trophy Grand Final, Nethula was about to deliver some of his lethal best as the Aces dominated them with bat and ball.
Already the competition’s leading wicket-taker heading into what should have been a combative finale at Pukekura Park, the experienced leggie was coming off a four-fa in the midweek Elimination Final against Canterbury and stood up again in the big one, three maidens among his exceptional return of 2-24 off 10 at the boutique venue.
One of those wickets was particularly significant — that of in-form captain Will Young on 49, breaking a 101-run partnership in the 25th over for the third wicket with Bruce, a stand that was threatening to lift the Stags out of an early pickle.
By then the home mood was already muted, but the blow would prove the turning point of a Stags innings that rotted away from 128 for three (opener Dane Cleaver also back in the pavilion, prostrate on the physio table after retiring hurt with an injured back) to a lacklustre 197 all out in 46.4 overs.
Questions were now asked as to the balance of the side; why the Stags had batted first with a "bowler-heavy" line-up after having brought bowling allrounder Ben Wheeler into the playing XI at Ben Smith's expense. But that ignored Wheeler's step up in batting form for both the Stags and BLACKCAPS this summer, and New Zealand's trademark one-day predilection for allrounders. The Stags batted deep, and would have greater things to worry about with two key injuries in a Grand Final, one of them taking out their second spinner on a deck where the Aces' spinners were clearly enjoying themselves.
Nethula claimed a brace of catches as well to help dismiss Tom Bruce, normally so dangerous on his home ground but who who followed Young back in 10 balls later; and the capable Doug Bracewell — who ultimately sacrificed himself going for as many last-ditch runs as he could, a little-used number eleven at the other end and steam coming out of Lockie Ferguson’s nostrils.
Nethula wasn’t lacking for support in the Aces’ attack and, while both Ferguson and the off-spinner du jour Mark Chapman (3-41) netted three-fa’s (including a double wicket maiden for part-timer Chapman in a brutal 33rd over), it was the competitive Nethula, a BLACKCAP back in 2012 when he played a handful of ODIs, who turned on the masterclass under pressure to remind everyone just how effective he can be.
The match-turner had laid his hands on The Ford Trophy only once before, the tight thriller of 2012 — ironically, as part of the Central Stags, at this very same ground, against the very team he was now bleeding blue for.
It wasn’t a thriller this time. Not even close. A cake-walk, almost, the Aces rolling the Stags for just 197 on a slow deck and none of Central’s hard-hitters reaching a half century at a ground more usually spoken about for its tantalising short boundaries and spectacular sixes.
The match had been delayed by half an hour by a dewy outfield on the shaded western side of the ground and Cyclone Gita’s impact on New Plymouth earlier in the week had no doubt led to angst for the groundsmen, and likely also, now, the catalogue of batsmen who struggled to adjust their timing in time. But it was a fair surface, one the Aces read well, and ultimately they used it to their advantage despite having been asked bowl first.
For the hosts, the game progressively developed into an uncomfortable case of déja vu in what would become their second squandered white-ball Grand Final this season. They had headed into this match without having dropped a game since the opening round, but now the same team would come back to bite them again.
Cleaver had moved back up the order to open at the expense of Ben Smith as Ben Wheeler returned to stack the top qualifying hosts with yet another allrounder. But on six, the keeper-batsman felt pain shoot through his lower back as he turned at the crease for a would-be two.
Hobbling off gingerly, he would manage to return later in the match only to hobble off again when he was dismissed four balls later by Chapman, and it would be stand-in Smith — not generally a keeper — who gamely took over his position behind the stumps, Bruce remaining in the outfield despite having filled in for the BLACKCAPS in the same role last season.
Cleaver’s early anguish was an omen of what was soon to follow. George Worker, the hero of The Ford Trophy Grand Final here just two years ago, had pelted three boundaries off Ferguson’s opening over but the quick soon exacted revenge getting him to nick behind shortly after play resumed, then the potency of Jesse Ryder was also negated early doors as he sent up a skier off leftie Ben Lister.
Later, Worker would roll his ankle standing on the ball while fielding, after being smashed off a solitary over, the injury meaning both the designated reserves — Smith and Josh Clarkson — were on the field at once. The biggest day of their solid one-day season was all turning to custard for the hosts.
Enter the Taranaki pair of Young (49) and Bruce (49), and an intended third-wicket recovery that was broken just as they were each poised to kick on — needing to power up the run rate against an Aces’ spin attack that had other ideas.
As it turned out, the Stags would be dismissed a good 100 runs short of a competitive total. It would be the first time all season that the Central number eleven was required to bat, and perhaps just the second time he had even padded up as the Aces worked their way through the back half of the order, including the invalided Cleaver, after both Ben Wheeler and Adam Milne had been nicked out by Nethula and Chapman.
Genuine allrounder Doug Bracewell held on from six, and didn’t look rattled, but his value was restricted by the game situation, unable to play freely for a 64-ball 40 that put the Stags in with a chance of at least reaching a bare minimum 200 at the ground.
Meanwhile, 128 for three quickly spiralled to 135 for seven as the Stags struggled to find weaknesses in the attack. The tail began perishing in a desperate search for runs — all of the wickets in their innings were catches, a mixed bag of faint edges and miscued lobs. Big Blair Tickner lumbered out with his unblemished bat in hand, the writing on the wall.
Bracewell had hit his first six to get the side to 150, and produced an even bigger effort just before Ajaz Patel nicked off to Jamie Brown. Bracewell gathered what more he could before he himself was caught looking to lob Ferguson over Nethula’s head, the end of an innings in which no Stag at Pukekura Park reached a half-century.
Ferguson (3-28 off 9.4), who had been released from the BLACKCAPS for the match, was fizzing as he led the young Aces pace attack, and had finished Bracewell off.
Facing a tame chase, the Aces’ batting line-up was entitled to feel confident over lunch but, being a Final and all, still needed a good start. Jeet Raval and a graunchy Glenn Phillips ensured they got it, Raval (47, 7x4, 1x6) finding his one-day touch just at the right moment in the final two sudden death games of the season.
Wednesday’s centurion fell just shy of a half-century on this occasion, but in the context of a low target, his job was effectively done after an 84-run opening stand with Phillips (63, 9 x 4, 2 x 6).
Tickner finally enticed the catch from Raval, then shattered Sean Solia’s stumps with a superb yorker to have the Aces 93 for two. Ben Wheeler would claim the last two wickets to fall in the white ball season (bowling Phillips, then getting Mark Chapman caught on the boundary), but by then the duo (47 off 36, 5 x 4, 3 x 6) had all put put the trophy in the bag.
After just 32.4 overs of the Grand Final the Aces’ tent erupted in celebration, nailing their first Ford Trophy in six seasons with hard-edged style, their faith in a new-look squad this season handsomely rewarded.