2018/19 GRAND FINAL
OTAGO VOLTS v WELLINGTON FIREBIRDS
1 DECEMBER 2018 • UNIVERSITY OF OTAGO OVAL, DUNEDIN
Result: Wellington Firebirds won by 3 wickets
They're calling it one of the most gripping Ford Trophy Grand Finals ever after a dramatic, see-sawing match went down to the final overs in Dunedin.
Both teams suffered top/middle order collapses, both teams fought back tenaciously with the bat, both captains broke the record for wickets in a season for their respective teams as both teams bowled their hearts out in front of a spellbound University of Otago Oval crowd.
They left still rubbing their eyes after a fascinating day of cricket, the Wellington Firebirds breaking Otago hearts with a tight three-wicket win to claim the championship.
Despite having been asked to bowl, Hamish Bennett's Firebirds made a brilliant start with a $45,000 first prize, personal pride and national glory on the line.
They had top qualifiers the Volts reeling at 37 for four after Bennett had put himself on a hat-trick in the 10th over.
Jimmy Neesham had just taken his second catch, grabbing the relay fended off his teammate in the slips to remove young number four Nathan Smith for just five. Next ball, Shawn Hicks played on for a golden duck.
New man Anaru Kitchen took a two down the ground first ball to avert the hat-trick, denying Bennett the chance to be the first bowler in his team's List A domestic history to achieve the rare feat.
But Bennett was just one ball late. It was a catastrophic over for the Volts, Kitchen bowled off the very next ball to have the menacing Bennett sitting on 3-17 off 4.4 overs — and bowling to four slips in a one-day game with steam coming out of his nostrils.
First drop Neil Broom meanwhile stood in disbelief at the other end, on 16*, having just watched the scoreboard's wickets column plummet from 37 for two to 39 for five in the space of four balls.
The opening pair had already made their way back to the sheds, Mitch Renwick caught to a well executed grab from Neesham in the slips at the end of the very first over of the day, bowled by the Firebirds' other form paceman Ollie Newton.
Newton then had his second in the seventh over, Brad Wilson feathering to the keeper, with both teams having had to wait nervously for the third umpire review.
Southern hearts were again up in the throats as Peter Younghusband narrowly missed running out Broom in the 13th over as the sun streamed down on the Volts' home ground, some bounce early on for Bennett but a stiff breeze and slow-paced deck keeping all on their toes.
However, after having pressed on to 25, Broom fell to a brilliant dive from Firebirds keeper Johns just a few minutes later to have the Volts in serious peril at 55 for six.
The huge wicket of Broom came courtesy of Iain McPeake and it meant Josh Finnie joined Michael Rippon on 7* in just the 14th over, the pair at the crease far earlier than anyone would have imagined and forcing the two naturally attacking batsmen into an urgent consolidation mode.
It was about to get even worse for the Volts: Finnie desperately diving at full stretch to make his ground, only to be run out for no score, Andrew Fletcher with a sharp throw to the keeper Lauchie Johns: 57 for seven in the 16th, a maiden bowled by Malcolm Nofal.
The Firebirds had the Volts by the throat at that point but Rippon (on 9*) and new partner Christi Viljoen peeled a handful of boundaries off McPeake and Nofal to settle the nerves over the next overs.
It prompted Bennett to bring in leg-spinner Peter Younghusband in the 20th to try to keep the pressure on, a double change with Neesham following in the 21st, but the new pair got the scoreboard ticking.
They posted the Volts' 100 off 147 balls in the 25th as they headed towards a quick 50-stand for the eighth, their team's chance resting almost entirely in their gloved hands.
It was the beginning of a courageous fightback that pulled the Volts right back into the game, under pressure, while the Firebirds progressively began to worry about how many runs this might cost them.
When Bennett sensed the pair was really getting too comfortable, he brought himself back into the attack to try to up the pressure on Rippon, just as the Volts' number seven was nearing a half ton after an hour and half's good work settling things down with Viljoen.
Rippon responded with an almost insolent ramp shot to the boundary to reach his half century off 72 balls.
The Volts pair kept trucking towards a 100-stand off 151 balls, and then some. Batting time was as important as runs, at this stage, but with time, the runs came. An ebullient cheer went up from around the ground as the scoreboard registered the Volts' 200 that had seemed so, so unlikely at 57 for seven.
Now Rippon was just 18 runs away from making a maiden century in a Final. He was also just one short, now, of his List A career best of 83, and at that very moment captain Bennett struck again to end the phenomenal partnership at 146. The previous eighth-wicket record for the Volts, set in 2002/03, had been just 93.
The wicket ushered in Volts captain Duffy who joined Viljoen, playing out of his skin on 69*, as they looked to press on from 203 for eight.
With no further loss, the Volts finished their 50 overs at 238, a miraculous achievement on both fronts from that nerve-jangling position of 57 for seven.
Christi Viljoen, finishing on 87* off 107, had by then earned the highest score by any number nine batsman in The Ford Trophy's history, beating Graham Napier's 73* for the Central Stags in 2009 after having timed the ball to the rope for 10 boundaries and a six.
Bennett finished with 4-46 off his 10, including a maiden to take his wickets tally for the campaign to an outstanding 28. He was now the outright Wellington Firebirds' record-holder, surpassing Glenn Jonas's and Paul Hitchcock's 24 in a season, while keeper Lauchie Johns extended the Firebirds record for dismissals in a List A season to 25.
But if the Volts could make early breakthroughs, the southerners could now even contemplate putting the Firebirds under some pressure with the ball — and they got two big wickets inside the first 10 overs to have their fiery foe at 44 for two.
Andrew Fletcher, the Firebirds' record run-setter this season, was an early loss as he practically ladled an edge Duffy to Shawn Hicks in the third over.
Kitchen then claimed Devon Conway in the third over of his first spell, Michael Bracewell joining Mike Pollard on 27* with 191 still required and nerves needing to be settled.
Little fewer than three overs later, however, the home crowd was on their feet again as Pollard was run out by Broom, after his positive 33 and a brief consultation with the third umpire.
That brought Neesham to the wicket at 54 for three in the 13th. The tension didn't abate in the visitors' viewing area with form allrounder Neesham (below), coming off his career best century in Auckland, bowled for just six runs after trying to play back against Rippon.
Barely off the mark, Michael Bracewell was caught a couple of overs further down the track to have the Firebirds at an eerily familiar score of 75 for five.
Rippon now had 2-17 off his first three overs. Finals footy!
Brought together in the 17th, Peter Younghusband (all-time best score: 52) fought back with Malcolm Nofal, however, putting on a 118-run stand for the sixth wicket in their chase of 235.
Younghusband had contributed little with the bat this season until now, but played a gutsy knock. He would reach 49 before Duffy's return broke the impressive fightback, trapping him at 193 for six.
The two innings were like a mirror image of each other.
The Firebirds had gained back some momentum, had clawed their way back in front of the DLS par score (unnerving low grey cloud kept scudding over the ground) and now needed just 42 more runs at slightly less than a run-a-ball from 7.4 overs: a Final destined for a nerve-wracking finish.
Earlier, when Nofal had raised his bat for his own hard-earned 50, the Firebirds had needed a further 82 off 84. A couple of wickets then, and it would have been hanging by a thread once more. But they kept their heads amid the tension, with every run vital.
Despite the loss of Nofal on 73, and young co-captain Duffy (above) bowling his heart out to finish with 3-50, and Rippon with a well controlled 2-47 off his 10, the Firebirds' tail was able to pace itself all the way to a hard-fought result.
Newton, one of their heroes of the campaign with the ball, hit the winning runs, and jumped ecstatically as his teammates went into that glorious post-match frenzy of emotion.
Their three-wicket championship victory with eight balls to spare was a thrilling way to claim a tense Ford Trophy Grand Final and a deeply rewarding finish to a strong campaign through 12 games.
Lauchie Johns floated off the park unbeaten with 24* off 20 deliveries as the celebrations began, coach Glenn Pocknall watching on with pride in his first season as Ford Trophy coach of a champion side.
For the Volts, it was heartbreak, but they too could look back with pride on a season in which finally got it together, and played some outstanding cricket. The two best teams had gone head to head and battled to the end for the right to be called The Ford Trophy champions for 2018/19.