All eyes were on the Rangiora rematch between the Kings and Stags as the round three shakedown carried on shaking up the tight table.
The Stags made a top start with big paceman Blair Tickner striking with a well disguised slower ball in his very first over, the Kings off to a slow one at six for one after two overs despite having asked the Stags to bowl first.
It was just the uplifting moment the Stags attack had needed early after having lost firstly star batsman Jesse Ryder (unavailable this round) then their king of swing Seth Rance (BLACKCAPS) for this big rematch, young allrounder Christian Leopard — who represented NZ at the last ICC Under-19 World Cup — coming into the playing XI on T20 debut and seamer Nav Patel making a hasty series of flights to arrive in time to run the drinks.
Nippy slinger Ryan McCone was also back for the first time this summer after recovering from back dramas and he instigated a second quick breakthrough — Tom Bruce showing superb class in the field with a spectacular catch, running backwards and diving at cover to stop Michael Pollard in the fifth over and bring Ben Stokes out to the middle.
It was first drop Chad Bowes who ultimately made the fast start, however, costing McCone nine from that first over of his before Stokes kicked into gear to help slam 14 off the ninth, getting under his first six off spinner Ajaz Patel. The Kings were away.
Bevan Small isn’t usually the most talked-about bowler in the Stags’ attack, but the competitive allrounder proved Stokes’s nemesis by getting him caught for the second time in as many games — then part-time spinner Bruce struck in his first over in the next, keeper Dane Cleaver slick with the gloves in order to have form batsman Cole McConchie gone at 91/4.
Bowes, meanwhile, was the man hanging in there for the hosts, and brought up his half ton with a beautifully struck boundary. The Kings 115/4 at the three-quarter mark, pressure was on the regal hosts to get lift off at the death, Bowes set on a 42-ball 60 and starting to pull out all his shots.
Bowes boomed it again but the Kings were too often locked into ticking over the strike with singles and twos, time running out to get a biggie on the board despite Cam Fletcher again showing good strike-rotating skills with the bat.
The pair punched up their 50-stand off 32 balls before Fletcher showed his muscle in the 18th with a big six off McCone, but Bowes’ sweetly paced, career best innings came to a screeching halt early in the penultimate over when he became Tickner’s second strike, Bruce pocketing the grab in the deep as Bowes headed back in to the tent after a big 55-ball 82.
Fletcher bashed another two sixes off Ben Wheeler’s last, 174 for five the Kings’ tally after rallying well at the death but Tickner stepping up well with his 2-24 off four overs.
That set the Stags a target of 8.75 per over with the bat, but the Kings made an ideal start with Cole McConchie striking first over thanks to a slick low diving grab from Ellis at deep fine leg, Ben Smith making way for captain Will Young with Dane Cleaver at the top in Ryder’s absence.
Quick Ed Nuttall was making a welcome return for the Kings and got off to a top start of his own with just one run off his first over, the Stags needing to find some counterattack quickly with not as much pace on the ball as everyone all round would have fancied.
Slower balls would prove the most dangerous deliveries but the boundaries came flying in the fourth over as the pair clobbered 15 runs, Cleaver ensuring the green machine kept pace with the Kings’ tally early doors.
Jeremy Benton produced a big boost to the Kings with two wickets in three balls in the seventh, the dangerous duo of Cleaver and Will Young both gone — Cleaver having just boomed Ben Stokes’s first ball out of the park.
The Stags had a fresh power-hitting duo together in Tom Bruce and Josh Clarkson but with their team only a nose in front, they had to find momentum on a deck that was only getting lower. Bruce was the next victim, bringing in Leopard on T20 debut at a tricky stage of the chase.
Clarkson boomed Stokes for six with the young former NZ Under-19s World Cup teammates keeping their side tracking ahead of the Kings, just, and about to rustle up the 100 in the 13th over — but Stokes had the last laugh as big-hitter Clarkson was quickly caught: 100 for five.
The Stags weren’t out of firepower though with Ben Wheeler striding out to attempt to combat Andrew Ellis, hunting his 100th Burger King Super Smash wicket in ideal conditions. But it was Benton who struck next over to take Wheeler’s experience out of the equation, the needle now pointing in the danger zone for the Stags.
The wickets kept coming with a brilliant catch from Will Williams bringing Leopard’s promising debut cameo to a close, the Stags left needing 41 off the last three overs. In the end a few extra wickets had cost them on a difficult surface, unable to rein in an escalating ask with a tough 21 runs needed from the last four deliveries and the Kings walking off the victors this time around.