Central Stags v Canterbury at McLean Park, Napier 25-28 March 2018
Batting Bonus Points: Central Stags 4, Canterbury 0
Bowling Bonus Points: Canterbury 3, Central Stags 4
Total points this round: Central Stags 20, Canterbury 3
Result: Central Stags defeated Canterbury by an innings and 58 runs inside three days
The Central Stags entered the third morning in the box seat, having forced Canterbury to follow on 263 runs behind, then claiming two late wickets on day two.
Now day three began on the perfect note for the hosts with Canterbury's luckless debutant Jeff Case run out off the very first delivery of the morning. Case, scrambling in vain to get back to the non-striker's after calling mayhem with his captain, was left sloping off for just three, having batted patiently for an hour the evening before.
After that first-ball burst of excitement, the Stags would be made to wait until the middle session for another wicket as Canterbury dug in.
McConchie and Ken McClure offered few opportunities for much else, grafting their way to a defiant 104-run stand for the fourth wicket on a warm late summer's Bay afternoon.
The Stags' attack — Milne, Bracewell, Tickner, Rance, and later spinner Patel in a marathon spell— never stopped coming at them, and while a couple of chances went begging they finally gave their teammates something to applaud as McConchie reached his half century after almost two and a half hours of persistance.
For the fresher faces in the Canterbury side it was a demonstration of what the first-class game demands under pressure, McClure a picture of organisation and patience as he fended off the volleys of uppish deliveries.
Finally, the wall cracked. McConchie popped one up as Seth Rance came back into the attack with fire in his belly after lunch, gathered up by Tom Bruce as the Canterbury captain departed for a gallant 63.
Just 10 overs down the track McClure was gone, too, the first of Ajaz Patel's wickets for the day as he was bowled just shy of a half century after two and a half hours. Canterbury was still trailing by 91 runs.
Now the gates were open, and after a marathon spell Patel seized his opportunity to rip through with his 15th first-class five-wicket bag.
Will Young took a sensational diving catch to his left at short cover to remove the capable Cam Fletcher on seven, without an ounce of luck in this match, and from there the Canterbury tail crumbled away from 173 for six to 205 all out, Doug Bracewell picking up the other wicket alongside Patel's 5-67.
The victory, by an innings and 58 runs, was a significant one, propelling the undefeated Central Stags ahead of rivals the Firebirds and into the Plunket Shield lead with one round to go. Weather permitting, they will now have the opportunity control their own destiny heading into an intriguing last round against Northern Districts across the road at Nelson Park, while the Firebirds must pray for Auckland weather to behave in their final contest away to the Aces.
For Patel, his seven-wicket match haul also propelled him back to the top of the wicket-taking charts with 43 from eight rounds, and sets up an intriguing final round battle with a rampant Ish Sodhi, albeit on a deck not known for its turn | UPDATE: Ish Sodhi has subsequently been called into the BLACKCAPS' Test squad, replacing injured Todd Astle.
Should Patel prevail at the end of the summer, he will have been the Plunket Shield's top wicket-taker for a startling three seasons in a row.
The Central Stags quickly took command of what appeared on paper to be a mismatch between one of the teams of the season and a youthful group looking to gain first-class experience now that there season was all but over.
Stags captain Will Young declared shortly before lunch at 360 for seven, after Tom Bruce (78*), Dane Cleaver (46) and ultimately Adam Milne (19) — with a thumping six off Kyle Jamieson — pushed them to maximum batting bonus points from the first innings ahead of the 110-over cut-off.
Canterbury survived the tricky period before lunch but by the tea break they were in a heap of trouble.
A dramatic shift was created by a devastating Blair Tickner triple wicket maiden, although Cameron Fletcher will count himself as an unlucky victim among the trio after a dubious caught behind.
Coming off his maiden century in the previous round, the polished Fletcher was a major loss on a three-ball duck, Kyle Jamieson and Will Williams all likewise falling caught behind to Tickner for no score.
Tickner's first strike in the over had been opener Michael Davidson, caught on 25, and now with the wickets of Fletcher and Jamieson in the same 26th over he was once again on course for his maiden first-class five-wicket bag, having been denied in the previous round.
This time around he secured the landmark with the wicket of Will Williams in his following over.
Canterbury was in a spin, the dressing room door flapping this way and that as the carnage continued. Spinner Ajaz Patel put himself on an unconverted hat-trick the very next over, Theo van Woerkom at least managing to temporarily hold the charging Stags out on the hat-trick ball, the fielders all crowded round his bat.
The flurry of wickets saw Canterbury drop from 68 for one to 73 for eight.
The Central Stags went on to dismiss Canterbury for 97, Canterbury's second lowest total against the Stags in their first-class history, by one run.
And so the Stags enforced the follow-on, putting themselves in position for an innings victory after just two days and having taken maximum bonus points from the match.
By stumps, Tickner had yet another wicket while his wicketkeeper Dane Cleaver had had a busy day with five catches in the first innings and a further two in the second, in addition to his 46 runs in the morning.
Canterbury will resume day three at 58 for two, still trailing by 205 runs and looking to avoid at least an innings defeat. With the Wellington Firebirds meanwhile having suffered a quick defeat at the hands of Northern Districts, a Stags victory will sweep them to the head of the table with one round to play.
Although the Hawke's Bay sun was shining brightly, damp ground conditions meant the start of this key match was delayed by an hour and a half.
When the surface dried off, home captain Will Young claimed the toss and opted to bat against a youngish Canterbury side that was missing a number of familiar faces. Cole McConchie once again was captaining the side but with usual skipper Andrew Ellis this time back in Christchurch, rested after a long summer.
The oldest player in the Canterbury side was in fact its newest: 27-year-old Jeff Case (above at right) on Canterbury and first-class debut.
The Stags, meanwhile, had all their usual suspects back from the New Zealand XI games and patiently set about setting up a strong first innings total in the limited time available on day one.
Opener Greg Hay is enjoying his most prolific season, having scored a half century or better (the better being three centuries) in every Plunket Shield match in which he has played this summer — and the only round he has missed is the previous one, when he was called into the New Zealand XI side to play England.
In Napier it was business as usual for the 33-year-old who carried on from his unbeaten 21 at lunch to reach 70 in just over two and a half hours on a well-grassed but sluggish deck.
Patience was the order of the day, fellow opener George Worker batting for almost 40 minutes for just six before his leg stump was sent west by Kyle Jamieson — the batsmen treating both the big Jamieson and Will Williams with caution in the opening hour.
Worker was the sole loss in the opening session, Ben Smith (50) and Hay picking up the pace after lunch with both reaching their half centuries before spinner Theo van Woerkom, playing just his fourth first-class match in three seasons, eventually claimed each of them, ending a 90-run stand for the third wicket before tea.
Left-arm tweaker van Woerkom (2-103) was making the most of his opportunity with Todd Astle away on Test duty, but was unlucky not to have picked up the big fish Will Young who was dropped on 11 after having looked to sweep him, the low autumnal sun possibly complicating matters on the boundary for a gutted Andrew Hazeldine as the catch slipped through his hands.
Young was unbeaten on 63 at stumps, sharing an ominous 74-run stand overnight with Tom Bruce (37*) after the pair had begun to regularly put the ball to the rope, and over it, in the last session.
The Stags will resume well placed at 236 for three.