Auckland Aces v Wellington Firebirds at Eden Park Outer Oval, Auckland 2-4 April 2018
First innings batting bonus points: Auckland Aces 3 (completed), Wellington Firebirds 0 (completed)
First innings bowling bonus points: Wellington Firebirds 4 (maximum achieved), Auckland Aces 4 (maximum achieved)
RESULT: Auckland Aces won by 120 runs
Total points this round: Auckland Aces 19, Wellington Firebirds 4
The final innings in the fast-moving match at Auckland's Eden Park Outer Oval saw title contenders the Wellington Firebirds requiring 294 for an outright victory — with more than five sessions remaining in the match, and the likelihood of lifting the Plunket Shield if they chased it down. However, by the end of the day, the coveted Plunket Shield would be on its way to Napier instead.
A victory would have meant the only other remaining title contenders, the Central Stags, would have required an outright against Northern Districts at Napier's Nelson Park in order to claim the $75,000 prize for winning the first-class championship. And to do that, the Central Stags would have been required to chase down more than 500 runs on a flat wicket. In Napier there was a collective sigh of relief as the news arrived.
The Firebirds had quickly bowled out the Aces for 163 on the third morning to set up their chase, maestro Jeetan Patel (5-37) spinning his way to the 20th first-class five-wicket bag of his career (and 12th for the Firebirds, and his fourth this season). The passionate lifelong Wellingtonian was aiming, and hoping, along with the rest of the Firebirds, to secure the national title for the first time in 14 long years.
Patel ripped through four wickets in the morning, claiming Ben Horne, Glenn Phillips and Mark Chapman before taking care of the final Aces wicket, debutant Louis Delport.
Paceman Hamish Bennett had meanwhile accounted for tailenders Lockie Ferguson and Ben Lister in the space of three balls in the previous over as the hosts spun out from their overnight position of 124 for five to 163 all out in 51.5 overs.
The Firebirds elevated Devon Conway to open their final innings of the season (he had opened plenty of times in South Africa), but suffered an early loss when Ben Lister had veteran Michael Papps caught on 17, with a further 273 required for victory. Time will tell whether it will prove the final moment in Papps's epic career.
The visitors made it through to lunch without further loss, however, 56 for one at the break and now requiring a further 238, Conway on 17*, Stephen Murdoch 22*.
The middle session would rachet up the tension, however, four wickets falling before Logan van Beek joined Tom Blundell for a 50-stand for the sixth wicket, the pair bringing up the Firebirds' 150 off 277 deliveries with the same stroke. A further 144 was now required.
However Aces debutant Louis Delport was about to have a major influence on the destination of the Plunket Shield in his first and last match of the season. The newbie tweaker claimed Murdoch as his maiden wicket and, by the time he was done, had a devastating 4-42 with van Beek, Devon Conway and Ollie Newton all in his bag.
Conway had been brilliantly caught by a tumbling Mark Chapman at short leg while Tom Blundell was desperately unlucky to be run out at the non-striker's end on 28 after bowler Danru Ferns got a touch off van Beek's drive to deflect it onto the sticks, taking the Firebirds to 161 for six, and with their longish tail exposed.
Delport snapped up his quick wickets before the dismissal of one the Firebirds' leading men of the season, pace bowler Hamish Bennett, sealed the Plunket Shield's fate.
He had been bowled by fellow paceman Lockie Ferguson to take the Aces quick to seven for the match, and the Aces to a 120-run victory that made third place on the season's table taste just that little bit better.
In Napier, where openers George Worker and Greg Hay were batting in the second dig, the cheering sounded on the sideline shortly before 4pm.
The Wellington Firebirds' title hopes took a heavy dent in the space of one, dramatic session as their first innings got rolling – in an out-of-control kind of way – on day two.
The out of contention Aces, meanwhile, kept themselves handily placed for one last hurrah in the season against the contenders, heading to the sheds at the end of the day with an overall lead of 254.
The Firebirds' untimely first-innings collapse cast a pall over their lunch, by which time they were already in peril at 104 for seven. Their hosts had come out with real purpose with the ball in the morning session, the quick bowlers terrorising the batting line-up and taking all seven of those wickets in the one session.
Lockie Ferguson was at his brutal best with 5-63 from 16 overs (sitting on 5-11 at the lunch break), having kicked off the carnage in just the third over with the wicket of Michael Papps.
When Luke Woodcock followed him in soon after, two influential wickets were gone, and the Firebirds never recovered.
Ben Lister (3-42) and Danru Ferns (2-30) played superb supporting roles as the quicks took all 10 wickets among themselves.
Lister once again proved difficult to handle for the top order, swinging the ball both ways and claiming the prize wicket of Tom Blundell for a duck.
Ferns (above) toiled away for seven overs and managed to remove Stephen Murdoch (22), a player who has hurt the Aces on the Outer Oval in the past.
With lunch drawing near, Ferguson knocked over Devon Conway (25), who was also looking dangerous, to take the Firebirds to 94/7 at the break.
The tail exposed, the Firebirds were hovering in follow-on territory and, significantly, a long way from securing even one of the four available bonus points with the bat.
With a spring in their step, the Aces came out after lunch looking to mop up the tail. However, tailenders Hamish Bennett (24) and Iain McPeake (33* off 36) had other ideas.
Their stubborn last-wicket partnership created a further 58 runs, giving the visitors' total a touch of respectability – 174, the Aces left with a lead of 130. But bonus points began at 200, so the Firebirds were left empty-handed.
Aces opening batsmen Sean Solia and Michael Guptill-Bunce (above) got the home side off to another fast start in their second dig, although going to tea 39/1 after losing the skipper.
The final session was another positive one, Solia kicking on and notching up his second half century for the match and once again looking right at home on the Outer Oval surface, timing the ball with ease for his 59.
Firebirds veteran Jeetan Patel kept fighting back for the visitors, and put himself on an unconverted hat-trick late in the day (survived by Ben Horne, who cheekily nudged him for a single) having claimed the wickets of Solia and Glenn Phillips.
Patel kept his side in the contest, and no doubt put the frighteners on the Central Stags who now know they can lift the 2017/18 Plunket Shield so long as the Aces defeat the Firebirds.
However, Mark Chapman (21*) and Ben Horne (9*) held their nerve, seeing out the remainder of the day before the umpires took the players off for bad light.
The Aces will resume tomorrow on 124/4.
Honours are even after day one of the Aces v Firebirds Plunket Shield fixture at Eden Park Outer Oval with the home side posting 304 in their first innings.
In the early Easter Monday exchanges, bat dominated ball with the Aces top order looking comfortable in familiar and favourable batting conditions.
After having been inserted by the Firebirds, Aces skipper Michael Guptill-Bunce (91) wasted no time in getting his side off to a positive start.
Guptill-Bunce played with freedom in the opening session, carting the ball to all parts of the Outer Oval in his typically dismissive style with the blade.
Fellow opener Sean Solia (72, above) proved the perfect foil for his captain, anchoring the innings at the other end while still dispatching the bad ball to the fence.
After a dominant couple of hours, the Aces went to the lunch at 133 without loss.
After the break, Guptill-Bunce couldn’t add to his total, falling on 91. However, Solia and Robbie O’Donnell continued manipulating the attack.
After cruising past his half century, Solia was eventually undone by Jeetan Patel, chipping one back to the off-spinner on 72, his highest first-class score.
Solia’s departure brought Martin Guptill to the crease and, along with O’Donnell, he saw the Aces through to the tea break at 214/2.
O’Donnell reached his half century in the last session, his patient innings flourishing after the interval as he scored freely all around the clock.
He had looked in complete control against both pace and spin, finding the fence at regular intervals while rotating the strike well.
However, the Aces hit a stumbling block in the final two hours of play, losing a heap of quick wickets to the second new ball - much to the chagrin of the Central Stags in Napier, who would have preferred them to deny the Firebirds as many bonus points as possible.
Logan van Beek picked up yet another five-wicket bag for the season as he ripped through the Aces' middle and lower order in an inspired spell late in the day, claiming Mark Chapman and Glenn Phillips in the space of an over to net the Firebirds their second bowling bonus point.
O’Donnell watched the carnage happen around him and was unlucky to be stranded on 93* as the Aces were bowled out for 304, the Firebirds to begin their chase on day two with four of the eight available bonus points already in the bank.
The Aces headed into their final match of the season without their most successful pace bowler Matt McEwan, omitted from the XI, while bringing in Louis Delport on debut.