Central Stags v Northern Districts at Nelson Park, Napier 2-5 April 2018
First innings batting bonus points: Northern Districts 0 (completed), Central Stags 0 (completed)
First innings bowling bonus points: Central Stags 4 (maximum achieved), Northern Districts 4 (maximum achieved)
RESULT: MATCH DRAWN
CENTRAL STAGS ARE NEW ZEALAND'S UNBEATEN 2017/18 PLUNKET SHIELD CHAMPIONS
The Central Stags were made to sweat, literally and figuratively, by a mammoth Northern Districts lead in their last match, but ultimately a Firebirds loss in Auckland saw them secure the 2017/18 first-class title with a day in hand.
It was just the 10th time in their 64 years of existence that the Stags had lifted the famous first-class trophy.
Stags captain Will Young (21* overnight) and Tom Bruce (12* overnight en route to his eventual 40) had resumed at 111 for three on the fourth and final day of the 2017/18 season, now simply looking to hold out Northern Districts to complete an unbeaten Plunket Shield season.
Young was a picture of resolve and intensity, reaching his patient half century shortly before lunch with the Stags by now 196 for four, trailing by 323. More to the point, they weren't going anywhere with the pitch.
Dane Cleaver added a half century of his own in the middle session, the Stags keeping their wickets intact in the session and reaching the tea interval at 265 for four, the deficit now cut to a more presentable 254 on a dead flat pitch - a far cry from the opening day on which 10 wickets had fallen.
No shaking of hands was offered as ND headed in for a cup of tea so Young (72*) and Cleaver (71*) set out to bat into a third session after the break.
With the breeze beginning to chill and no sign of a wicket, finally ND called off their quest for a valedictory win over the new champions.
Young and Cleaver walked off the Nelson Park oval unbeaten on 75 and 87 respectively, their 127-run stand for the fifth wicket the final act in a convincing season.
After having endured Grand Final heartbreak twice in the white-ball season, this time, no one could beat the Stags.
DAY THREE - Central Stags confirmed as New Zealand's first-class champions
The news came through shortly before 4pm after a long, hot day of toil, the Central Stags finally batting again after Northern Districts had set them a 500+ chase on a dry, flat Nelson Park deck.
Openers George Worker and Greg Hay were in the middle when they heard the whooping from the Stags tent on the sideline: the Auckland Aces has just bowled out the Wellington Firebirds at Eden Park Outer Oval: a trophy for 2017/18 was finally in the Central Stags' hands.
The $75,000 first-class national title will help compensate for a white-ball season in which the Stags made both the Burger King Super Smash and Ford Trophy Grand Finals, and lost them both in walkovers.
Now they had the coveted Plunket Shield, and something to show for an otherwise outstanding season.
And, as of day three, they remain undefeated in the first-class summer, their match at Napier's Nelson Park continuing in the late Hawke's Bay sun. They will even be back tomorrow, ready to resume at 111 for three.
Conditions at a hot and dry Nelson Park continued to favour batting on the third morning as Northern Districts built an overall lead of more than 500 in their mammoth second innings.
This despite two strikes from Adam Milne in the first session that had the visitors eight down.
The Stags opened with Milne, who ran in relentlessly and bowled gas in the hot sun, and the dependable Doug Bracewell, with leading seamer Seth Rance left pacing the outskirts of the ground, unavailable to bowl after developing soreness in his back earlier in the match.
By lunch, ND's lead stood at a whopping 473, Daryl Mitchell unbeaten on 78 and two wickets in hand, having just posted a 50-run stand with Jimmy Baker for the ninth wicket. They kept going.
Mitchell went on to raise his sixth-first class century — shortly before Ajaz Patel finally claimed the last two wickets in the space of three balls, having stopped the ninth-wicket stand between Mitchell and Baker at 95 runs, just 12 runs short of the Northern record against Central.
Mitchell was left unbeaten on 104 with the Stags batsmen facing a last-innings chase of 519. However, news filtering through that the Firebirds were meanwhile 100 for five in Auckland (the wickets falling simultaneously) no doubt alleviated some of their tension.
Patel's six-wicket haul took him to a final tally of 48 wickets for the 2017/18 season, including seven five-wicket bags — and he would walk off the park as the top Plunket Shield wicket-taker for a remarkable three seasons on the bounce.
After the big news from Auckland filtered through to the ground via NZC's livescoring app, the Stags continued their innings.
Opener Greg Hay's dismissal on 29 meant it was the first time all season that the most consistent batsman of 2017/18 hadn't scored a half century or better in a first-class match.
Ben Smith followed him in a couple of overs later, then George Worker found himself given on 42, veteran Brent Arnel, possibly in his last innings, delighted to claim all three top order wickets.
Captain Will Young and Tom Bruce took the score from 85 for three to three figures, Young posting the Stags' 100 with a boundary with nine overs remaining and the autumn shadows elongating across the turf.
The Shield will be presented tomorrow; in the meantime Young and Bruce will resume at 111 for three on the last day of a successful summer, yet trailing by 408 runs, while ND will be out to become the only side to beat the season's champions in 2017/18.
A rapidly flattening deck and Anton Devcich's fifth first-class century ensured there was no repeat of day one's revolving dressing room door as Northern Districts settled in for a substantial second-innings lead.
After 10 wickets on the first day, now only one would fall in the morning session, and the Stags had had to work hard for it, particularly after Seth Rance left the field with a stiff back.
Spinner Ajaz Patel eventually got the breakthrough, dismissing Daniel Flynn after his patient 33.
The spinner struck again quickly after lunch, removing fellow opener Henry Cooper (52, above) to bring Corey Anderson and Devcich together at 93 for two.
Anderson got a start with a quick 27, but got an edge onto his stumps off Adam Milne, but Devcich and Tim Seifert quickly kept the runs flowing with a 102-run stand for the fourth wicket through the meat of the warm middle session.
Devcich reached his 106 off just 76 balls (14 x 6, 2 x 4) but was dismissed by that man again Patel just a handful of deliveries after having reached three figures in the previous over.
By tea Northern Districts' overall lead had grown to 312, 277 for four at the break with Seifert closing in on his half century.
Meanwhile in Auckland, the Wellington Firebirds had been bundled out without a batting bonus point. Now they would need an outright if they were to overtake the Stags for the $75,000 Shield, while the Stags were on a bunsen burner trying to contain a forthcoming last innings target, just to be on the safe side.
Patel ticked off his 46th wicket of the season soon after the tea break with the wicket of Seifert (52) with Northern Districts trucking on to reach 331 for six for an overall lead of 366 before bad light stopped play shortly before 5.30pm, Patel on 4-114 overnight.
With the Firebirds chopping through the Aces' second innings wickets up north late in the afternoon, the Plunket Shield intrigue will continue for at least another day yet.
Greeted by a green-tinged deck, Central Stags captain Will Young put ND into bat before his pacemen made a quick start on the 10 wickets that would ultimately fall on day one, Seth Rance and Adam Milne getting the ball rolling by removing both openers inside the first four overs.
That brought Corey Anderson and Anton Devcich together both yet to get off the mark, but Milne and Rance claimed them, too, in successive overs.
Tim Seifert had survived a confident shout first ball, before the loss of Devcich had ND 30 for four inside 10 overs. He would lose another partner quickly in Daryl Mitchell, bowled by Rance to take the Central Stags paceman's opening spell to 7-1-23-3.
Seifert would meanwhile become Milne's next victim, the fast bowler going unchanged for 10 overs as the Stags made the most of the new ball. Milne would ultimately need to be content with a three-for, though it was a fingertip from a fourth wicket as Doug Bracewell put in a spectacular effort running back and diving to try to stop Scott Kuggeleijn on 0*, the ball landing just beyond his reach.
Kuggeleijn would be in for a particularly busy day and, after that early scare, he began slapping the ball here and there in his inimitable style, forming a recovery for the seventh wicket with Nick Kelly (below).
They had come together at 36 for six, but got ND through to 101 for six by lunch, Kelly grafting his way to an unbeaten 40 off 64 balls at the break with Kuggeleijn 21* off 48.
But Kelly could not add to his score in the middle session, out caught behind soon after play resumed as Rance snapped up his fourth wicket.
The wickets had come not from any special spice in the pitch, but well articulated line and length, and swing, with Rance continuing his searching form from the previous match across the road at McLean Park (that ground unavailable this week due to its impending Super Rugby match).
Once Kelly was gone and the no doubt annoying 68-run seventh wicket stand over, the Stags seized their chance to attack the tail, with Rance making another quick two strikes on the way to a career-best 11-3--6-26, bettering his previous first-class PB of 6-31.
Kuggeleijn kept slapping the ball about, the slow outfield doing the batsmen no favours at all, and was left unbeaten with a top score of 48* when Doug Bracewell got the last wicket for himself, bowling number 11 Brent Arnel to end the ND innings on 134.
The Stags had entered this final match as the Plunket Shield leaders with a four-point lead over the Wellington Firebirds, who were meanwhile at this time struggling to dismiss the Auckland Aces in Auckland. Now the Stags had taken the maximum bowling points from this game, and a steady effort with the bat would surely put them in with a good shout of getting enough batting points to leave the Firebirds needing an outright.
But the fizzing mood of the Stags and that of the good smattering of local spectators enjoying the Easter Monday show quickly dried up, George Worker departing scoreless third ball of the reply and then Mr Consistent Greg Hay following him back a few overs later.
Scott Kuggeleijn had done the damage and would take all three top order wickets inside his first three overs, before Jimmy Baker (above) jumped in and claimed Ben Smith for himself: 17/4.
Kuggeleijn quickly had a fourth wicket in Dane Cleaver; now the Stags were officially listing at 18 for five inside nine overs with the ND quick had 4-12.
Doug Bracewell joined an embattled Tom Bruce on 9*, only to be bowled for a golden duck to hand Kuggeleijn his seventh first-class five-wicket bag a couple of overs before tea time.
The Stags went to that tea break at a scarcely believable 25 for six from 12 overs, now needing a major effort to avoid recording their lowest ever first-class total which currently stood at 50. Batsmen had contributed to their own downfall, and while Bruce ensured the hosts at least ultimately got that precious 50 on the board, he was out shortly afterwards to Brent Arnel: 52/7.
Milne was joined by Seth Rance, partners at the batting crease now, and it would be Milne who put up the longest fight, staving off the hostility for almost an hour and a half.
Kuggeleijn continued flinging himself into his work and was no doubt inflamed when Rance slapped him for a six, batting with the same late order nonchalance as Kuggeleijn had himself. Rance raced to 33 off 25 balls, having shared a 40-run stand with Milne (who had just been caught off Arnel on 14).
Just as three figures loomed for the Stags on the scoreboard at last, it was all over in a flash. Kuggeleijn tore in to claim his sixth and seventh wickets in consecutive overs to dismiss the Stags for 99, leading the visitors off the field with his career best 7-48.
The Stags had to swallow a 35-run deficit on the first innings, but in the context of the day and match, they could have been walking off in a far more vulnerable position. Bad light saw ND's second innings interrupted before stumps was called just one over after they got back on the field, set to resume day two on 2/0.
To add to an enervating day for the Stags on which 10 wickets fell, by stumps in Auckland the Wellington Firebirds had finally chipped out the Aces and bagged maximum bowling points themselves.