Northern Districts beat Central Stags by 5 wickets
Bert Sutcliffe Oval, Lincoln
After scattered appearances for the Wellington Firebirds and a catalogue of injuries over the last few seasons, right-armer Anurag "Rags" Verma's return to the ND jersey of his youth very nearly delivered a triple wicket maiden.
Only a wide blotted his sensational 44th over that removed Central Stags Christian Leopard, the big wicket of captain Tom Bruce and then Seth Rance very next ball, in the space of four balls.
The loss of Bruce, who had elected to bat first at "the Bert", was an especially big blow to the Stags in the third-round battle between two winless teams.
Coming off two half centuries on the bounce, Bruce was capable of pushing the Stags up past a 300-plus total in the first of the Lincoln centralised rounds, looking to capitalise after a power start by openers Dane Cleaver and George Worker.
Cleaver was fast out of the blocks, putting on 143 for the first wicket with Worker who looked to pace himself for another big total - the Stags well on track for a 330+ score before the pair was lost either side of the 30-over mark.
In sunny but windy conditions, Cleaver top-scored for the Stags with 83, his half century flying off 55 balls on the big ground while Worker reached his half ton off 76 pills, one of which was sacrificed to the local Lincoln shrubbery.
After Verma and Scott Kuggeleijn had opened the attack together, BLACKCAP Ish Sodhi kept things tight through the middle and slowed the pair's strike rate, before fifth change Daryl Mitchell finally got the long-awaited breakthrough.
Nothing at this point suggested ND was on course to anything other than another long day in the dirt, but after a couple more wickets were chipped out cheaply by Sodhi and Zak Gibson, Verma's return to the bowling crease suddenly racheted up the pressure on the Stags who were 216/7 by the end of his game-changer over.
Had it not been for a surprise cameo by number 10 Blair Tickner - belting a six and three fours in his 11-ball 24, which doubled his previous best List A score; the Stags would have found themselves even further from their initial 300-run target.
As it was, they were bowled out for 270 on the last ball of the innings which, in the context of the innings, looked below the ideal.
Verma finished with 3-60 off his nine - Bruce caught on a run-a-ball 36 - while Mitchell chimed in 3-54 off eight, which included the crucial wickets of both opening batsmen.
Seifert had batted into the 31st over and was a big wicket for a hard-working Seth Rance but, at 244 for three, things weren't looking flash for the Stags.
By the time Tickner removed Carter, there were just 27 runs at a near run-a-ball clip required for victory and, with Mitchell (62* off 54) established at the crease, ND was in total control chasing it down with eight balls to spare.
The two sides will meet again on Friday in Lincoln for a rematch, meanwhile the injury-hit Stags now face a tough challenge against the Wellington Firebirds in Lincoln this Wednesday while ND heads across to Hagley Oval to meet new leaders Canterbury.