Wellington Firebirds v Central Stags at the Basin Reserve, 17-20 March 2018
Batting Bonus Points: Wellington Firebirds 4 (maximum achieved), Central Stags 4 (maximum achieved)
Bowling Bonus Points: Central Stags 2 (completed), Wellington Firebirds 3 (completed)
Result: Match drawn
Total points this round: Wellington Firebirds 7, Central Stags 6
After four intense days of cricket, and the chance of an outright victory dangled before both captains' noses, the Battle of the Basin had lived up to its billing.
The two dominant sides of the first-class summer, albeit with some fresh adjustments to their regular squads, had scrapped and fought, punched and counterpunched, attacked and fought back yet again, all over 12 coveted outright points that could have helped the Firebirds lock up the Shield, or pushed the Stags to almost equal top.
Instead, both teams will head into the final two rounds of the New Zealand season still with one eye on each other, circling each other still from afar.
The battle had gone the distance, ending after a session soaked in tension on the final evening, long after Victoria Tunnel had started to choke with rush hour traffic and the post-work foot commuters had begun ambling home through the ground or whizzing behind the sightscreens obliviously on their bikes.
It had been yet another dramatic day, the Firebirds continuing to go hard at the Stags — you wouldn't expect less, but the results don't always come — with both bat and ball.
Devon Conway had been their hero of the morning session, after yesterday's horrific collapse. The composed keeper-batsman had soldiered on an unbeaten 82 by lunch, a pivotal knock that would eventually enable his captain to declare, after all.
The Wellington Firebirds had recovered remarkably to 234/8 at the break, leading by 341 overall, Alex Ridley (who had come in as a concussion substitute for Luke Woodcock) on 34* alongside Conway.
The flat deck continued to prove benign, Stags paceman Blair Tickner all but busting a gut in the hunt for his elusive maiden first-class five-wicket bag, and the likes of Adam Milne, Bevan Small and Willem Ludick likewise having to dig deep.
Tickner ironically has that rare jewel called a Twenty20 five-wicket-bag already in his career, yet at first-class level collects four-fas.
Even when he took his hat-trick against the Firebirds in Nelson earlier in the season, the bag remained elusive. Now the big man loped off to lunch on figures of 15-2-75-4, still hoping.
Ridley was now set as well, however, and after the break it was time for Conway to cash in, occasionally unleashing with class that indicated how and why he already had 13 first-class centuries to his name from his career in South Africa.
Only two wickets would fall, that of Newton, whose leg-stump was ripped out by Milne; and Iain McPeake who became Felix Murray's third and final wicket on debut (below).
Firebirds captain Michael Bracewell declared shortly after Conway reached his 14th first-class century, his first for the Wellington Firebirds (an unbeaten 103, off 178 balls with 11 fours), to go with 12 for Gauteng and one for KwaZulu-Natal for the now New Zealand-based player.
The sharp declaration at 264/8 set the Stags a challenge of 372 in 55 overs, on a sun-baked pitch that was now offering some up and down bounce.
In-form captain Will Young, who was to the crease fourth ball of the chase, and Jesse Ryder needed to steady the ship, now, before even thinking about going after the points.
But it would be a disastrous session for the Stags as their score quickly became 20 for five, losing the big wickets of Young, Tom Bruce and Dane Cleaver.
Hamish Bennett was superb and aggressive as he motored to 3-14 off his nine overs, including the key wicket of Young whom he deceived and had caught behind. He had earlier claimed the opener Brad Schmulian for no score and Dane Cleaver would also fall before him without score.
Ryder remained at tea, grafting to his unbeaten 28 alongside the debutant Ludick on 13 who, on his 21st birthday, had just punched a four to push the now-defensive Stags past 50.
Resuming the last session of the match at 51 for five, surely Ryder's fate now would determined who claimed the final session and with it, the game.
When Ryder was caught with 22 overs left to play after 131 minutes at the crease, heads with green caps drooped.
Big Iain McPeake had finally got him to chase one down the leg side, only to gift an edge behind. By now the last genuine batsman had departed, and Adam Milne, like Ludick before him, played watchfully for almost an hour, chewing up time the goal.
Ollie Newton (above) had earlier claimed Ludick caught behind as his second wicket after having made one of the early breakthroughs, the young man feathering a bottom edge.
Now Milne's long day ended with a straightforward catch offered on four, leaving the Stags 85 for eight as the small figure of 19-year-old Felix Murray shuffled out to the crease with more than an hour left to play in the long shadows of the Basin.
A dramatic final session on day three saw the Wellington Firebirds effectively sacrifice their hard-won first innings advantage, a shock second-innings collapse from the championship leaders hauling the Central Stags right back into contention in the crunch clash.
On a deck that had been a featherbed since the first afternoon, pacemen Adam Milne and Blair Tickner kept the heat on, unafraid to use the short ball as the Firebirds lost six wickets, in addition to opener Luke Woodcock who had retired hurt in just the fifth over after he was struck on the badge of the helmet trying to pull against Adam Milne at 10/0.
On his 36th birthday, Woodcock left the field feeling dazed, Milne having shown immediate concern for the veteran batsman. He recovered well during the afternoon.
Milne soon had his first wicket, bouncing out first drop Stephen Murdoch in the ninth over as the ducking first drop was caught off his helmet, before debutant Willie Ludick, the young genuine allrounder on debut, trapped Firebirds captain Michael Bracewell with just his third delivery.
In between, Firebirds opener Michael Papps had been looking in a dangerous mood, racing to a run-a-ball 48 as he swung hard across the line — and punched Tickner for six, twice.
The last time the two teams had met in the first-class arena, in Nelson before Christmas, Tickner had taken a first-class hat-trick. Everyone at the ground held their breath as the big pace bowler promptly put himself in line for a second hat-trick of the summer, against the very same side.
He started with Papps, bowling him with a beautifully angled nut before Fraser Colson — who already has two first-class pairs —made a spectacularly ill-fated leave and lost his middle stump.
Hero of the first innings Macolm Nofal was good enough to deny Tickner a second hat-trick, but when he bottom-edged him on six - the catch snaffled by stand-in wicketkeeper Ben Smith after Dane Cleaver had left the field with a back twinge, Tickner's celebratory leap was the highest of the lot.
He had taken himself from figures of 0-31 to 3-36 in his spell, and wasn't done yet. With Jeetan Patel not renowned for his batting, and the Firebirds effectively six down with an overall lead of just 196, the Stags sniffed a major opportunity as the pressure went on the hosts to settle it down quickly before stumps.
Before long Tickner's heavy ball had Patel caught, the wicket maiden taking him to 4-38 in his first eight overs, bowling one more in the spell to finish with 4-44 off nine.
Milne meanwhile had come back into the attack and tormented Ollie Newton with a series of snorters, Newton surviving a less than enjoyable 40 minutes before stumps to ensure that he and Devon Conway (24*) can start again in the morning, the scoreboard parked at 118 for six overnight, a 225-run lead.
Already, the Firebirds' satisfaction at having taken a 107-run first innings advantage after eventually dismissing the Stags for 423 was somewhat dimmed.
Veteran spinner Jeetan Patel had claimed a five-wicket bag for the second time in as many matches - his 38th, but the close of the innings had some after a useful last-wicket stand of 37 from the final pair of Tickner and debutant Felix Murray (below), who was left unbeaten on 27.
Earlier, wicketkeeper-batsman Dane Cleaver marked his return to the batting crease (after having been injured in the Ford Trophy Grand Final several weeks earlier) with an innings of 72 in a 71-run stand with Ludick for the sixth wicket as the green-tinged Basin Reserve deck continued to prove benign in the fine conditions.
Former South Africa Under-19 rep Ludick (above) batted for an hour and a half in his first knock, hitting elegant sixes off Iain McPeake and Jeetan Patel for good measure.
Earlier in the morning, Will Young and Tom Bruce had extended their overnight stand for the fourth wicket to 110 runs before Patel broke through, Young left furious with himself after offering a chance behind on 75.
Bruce carried on to a patient 89 before he was trapped by Ollie Newton to have the Stags 292 for five.
However, as the partnerships kept coming, the Firebirds were unable to deny their rival a full set of batting bonuses, while pocketing three of the available four bowling bonsues, at a stage of the competition where every point counts.
The first-innings lead to the Firebirds, albeit far slimmer than they had hoped for, was a birthday present for both Woodcock and fellow birthday lad Colson. However, neither would enjoy the sudden turn events in the last two hours of a day on which the championship may yet turn.
Stags openers Ben Smith and Brad Schmulian safely navigated the three overs before the lunch break before Smith became the first to fall after the break, given out to a half-hearted appeal from Hamish Bennett to a ball that had looked a good leave.
Schmulian joined him back in the sheds to have the Stags 33 for two, but Jesse Ryder and Will Young steadied the shop with a 96-run stand for the third wicket.
Ryder looked at ease in familiar conditions but was lucky to survive on 33 against Bennett, however on 69 there was no such vagaries when he was caught behind off a fired-up Jeetan Patel.
Patel had been relentlessly challenging the batsmen, but captain Will Young and Tom Bruce would ensure there was no further trouble for the visitors before stumps, both heading into day three with unbeaten half centuries, 226 for three overnight on a flat deck and trailing by 304 on the first innings at stumps.
A remarkable sixth-wicket fightback saw a new first-class partnership record inked into the recordbooks for Plunket Shield leaders the Wellington Firebirds at a wind-chilled Basin Reserve.
Opener Luke Woodcock and Firebirds debutant Malcolm Nofal put on 247 in 72.5 overs for the sixth wicket - ensuring their side recovered from 99 for five to 346 for six when the stand was finally broken by a Stags debutant. It was an early portent of a see-saw of a match for both teams as the two dominant sides of the summer locked horns.
Nofal, who had a career best of 82 from his 11 first-class appearances for Gauteng in South Africa, reached his maiden century from 136 balls (6x4, 3x6) in his first first-class appearance for the capital side and, by stumps, was unbeaten on 136.
Woodcock meanwhile had already reached his 11th first-class century, all of them having been scored for the Firebirds, before sticking around to see Nofal reach his own milestone later in the last session.
Woodcock batted for more than six and a half hours before his dismissal on 147 ended the new Wellington Firebirds sixth-wicket record partnership (previous record: 226 set by Evan Gray and Ross Ormiston, also against the Central Stags at the Basin Reserve, in January 1982).
Woodcock, who is already the most-capped player in the Wellington Firebirds' first-class history, and currently in his 134th appearance for the team, now holds a stake in no fewer than three Wellington Firebirds partnership records — for the first, sixth and ninth wickets, the first two records having been posted this season and his ninth-wicket stand (also set against the Central Stags at the Basin Reserve) posted with Ili Tugaga in December 2009, when Woodcock was batting at five. The Wellington Firebirds' first-class records date back to the first match at the Basin in November 1873!
Woodcock, who had earlier taken a painful blow on the forearm from Milne that required treatment, was eventually dismissed by former South Africa ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup representative Willem Ludick, who was one of two players — along with double New Zealand ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup spinner Felix Murray — to make their first-class debut in this match for the Central Stags, who had lost a clutch of their regular performers to NZXI selections.
Earlier, BLACKCAPS pace bowler Adam Milne had had the Firebirds 4/2, putting himself on a hat-trick first over after the first three deliveries of the morning. Milne had won his battle with Michael Papps and then claimed a scoreless Stephen Murdoch, while 20-year-old Ludick ended his first day of first-class cricket with an impressive 3-68.
The Firebirds will resume on day two at 365 for six after having been sent in on a green-tinged deck that was rapidly flattening out.