Central Stags v Wellington Firebirds at Saxton Oval, Stoke, 24-26 November 2017
Points from this round: Central Stags 16, Wellington Firebirds 4
First innings bowling bonus points: Central Stags 4 (maximum achieved), Wellington Firebirds 4 (maximum achieved)
First innings batting bonus points: Wellington Firebirds 0, Central Stags 0
The Central Stags won by seven wickets in Nelson to become the only unbeaten team as the Plunket Shield hit the midway point of competition, and pre-Christmas recess ahead of The Ford Trophy and Burger King Super Smash.
The incumbent overnight pair of opener Greg Hay and nightwatchman Ajaz Patel saw it through without losing a wicket, ticking off the winning runs before lunch, whilst Firebirds captain Michael Bracewell kept up the attacking fields in a match which had delivered for the pacemen in the first session on the previous days.
However, the pace of the deck was easing as Hay and Patel continued a level-headed approach to gathering the 54 remaining runs required, a couple of loud shouts going up off Travis Muller but the Stags otherwise generally untroubled as they began picking off boundaries with confidence and cruised to victory with five sessions to spare.
It was not only the first loss for the Firebirds, whose lead on the points table is now slashed to just one run, but the fourth win in a row for the Stags, remarkably ending another four-match winning streak by their visitors.
The scoreboard itself is worthy of a mention, with each team scoring almost the same amount of runs in each of the four innings.
Hay's unbeaten 85 was the product of 3.2 hours' concerted effort at the crease and was tellingly the longest stay by any batsman in the match.
• Iain McPeake claimed his maiden first-class five-wicket bag in the first innings, and 50th wicket in the second innings (previous best: 3-24)
• McPeake himself became Ben Wheeler's 100th first-class career wicket in the Stags' second innings
Unbeaten home team the Central Stags will need just 54 runs on the morning of the third day to become the first team to defeat the high-flying Firebirds this season.
Yet, even with seven wickets in hand, it's unlikely to be a stroll through the park after bails continued to fly in the air and slip cordons swelled on the second day of a key, top-of-the-table showdown.
Incredibly, the teams have matched each other step for step on the Saxton Oval scoreboard throughout this fast-moving thriller, with 171 all out playing 172 all out playing 172 all out and now the Stags requiring 172 for victory on a deck that will undoubtedly do a bit early on when opener Greg Hay resumes on 69, alongside nightwatchman Ajaz Patel.
Not that the afternoon sessions have been a picnic for batting either, with the Firebirds' late order surviving several missed chances as Ben Wheeler and Blair Tickner zinged the ball around on the humid second afternoon, trying to rout their visitors for even fewer that 172 in the second dig.
Wheeler's rhythm and swing was challenging with his three for 40 off just a dozen or so overs, and when he sent Iain McPeake's stumps flying in the midst of it, he had his 100th first-class wicket in his first red-ball appearance for the Stags in a year.
Before that, big, burly McPeake had already enjoyed a rewarding day out of his own, having had Wheeler, Navin Patel and Ajaz Patel all caught for no score at the back end of the Stags' first dig to claim his maiden first-class bag.
McPeake had ensured the Firebirds stayed on target themselves, while South African Travis Muller had made his first wicket for the Firebirds a valuable one as he scattered Doug Bracewell's stumps to end Bracewell's mature, 76-ball 30.
Bracewell had lent his support support yet again to Dane Cleaver, the keeper-batsman marshalling his fourth half century (73), and third at this ground, this season to avert some sort of disaster befalling the Stags. They had shared a 64-run stand for the sixth wicket before Muller and McPeake kicked in to quickly wrap up the innings.
The pace quartet of Bracewell (3-22), Wheeler, Tickner and Navin Patel were all soon back in the wickets column themselves as the Firebirds commenced their reply in the morning session, ending it in time for tea.
Ollie Newton had batted at eleven with his injured hamstring, limping but hanging tough to support an adventurous Matt Taylor who typically swung hard in his run-a-ball 49, seven fours and two sixes included, the innings ending when Wheeler trapped him plumb on off-stump as he looked for one more meaty blow to get the half ton.
Fraser Colson, Dane Cleaver, Matt Taylor: it had been the pattern all match, one player getting a hold in the middle order, the rest having to watch. Finally the pattern changed as Stags opener Greg Hay atoned for his first-ball duck in the first dig to turn the match well in the hosts' favour with his unbeaten 69 in the last session.
He'd watched McPeake chop through two more wickets for the match already with opening partner Mitch Renwick and first drop Brad Schmulian both quick losses, Will Young joining him to build a solid, 90-run third-wicket stand that had finally seen Firebirds captain Michael Bracewell turning to his spinners.
Jeetan Patel as always demanded caution, but Young was up for that and took it to Luke Woodcock, carving the veteran for two sweet sixes in the 28th over that suddenly saw the Stags' target plummet to just 58.
Woodcock had an answer, Young departing a couple of overs later as Papps gobbled a ballooning chance at slip to halt the Stags captain on 35. Cue Ajaz Patel coming in ahead of Jesse Ryder as the match went to a third day after all.
A maiden first-class hat-trick was the highlight of an action-packed opening day between the Plunket Shield’s two unbeaten sides as round five got off to a riveting start.
Big, boisterous Blair Tickner, the Stags' 24-year-old emerging paceman, slammed through the Firebirds’ late order to register a special day in his fledgling first-class career.
And yet, after Stags captain Will Young had obligingly won the toss and looked to his bowlers on a grassy Saxton deck, Tickner had been the one missing out on all the fun throughout the morning session, in which five key wickets fell.
Doug Bracewell had Michael Papps trapped early on for his 150th first-class wicket for the Stags and, after lunch, came back for the 250th strike of his first-class career overall.
In the meantime, Navin Patel had delivered a double wicket maiden with Stephen Murdoch and a scoreless Firebirds captain Michael Bracewell his victims, while swing bowling allrounder Ben Wheeler — back from an early season hamstring injury and playing his first red ball match for the Stags in almost exactly a year — hooped in for two wickets of his own, crucially stopping opener Luke Woodcock on 25 as he squirted a catch to Greg Hay, and then finding Matt Taylor’s middle stump soon after.
That had the Firebirds in uncustomary disarray at 72 for five at lunch, but allrounder Fraser Colson produced a fighting 88 that flew in the face of the general carnage surrounding him.
For more than three hours Colson not only held firm, but chiselled out 14 boundaries and three rather styley sixes off Ajaz Patel and Wheeler as the attack tried to nut him out, but it took the loss of his partners at the other end to generate the pressure to force him from the middle.
Bracewell’s 250th was young debutant keeper-batsman Lachie Johns, then tall Tickner’s pace and bounce was too much for both Jeetan Patel and Ollie Newton, the first two victims of his hat-trick in the 49th over.
Enter Travis Muller on Wellington Firebirds debut, a South African first-class cricketer better known for his quick bowling. As the edge flew safely into the gloves of keeper Dane Cleaver, Tickner’s expression seemed to follow the ball almost in slow motion until the realisation saw him perform his customary leap in the air and the huddle of thrilled teammates surrounded him.
Tickner would claim the stubborn Colson as his fourth and final wicket for a haul of 4-45, just a few runs outside his first-class best as the front-running Firebirds found themselves all out for 171 a smidgen inside two sessions.
The Stags’ reply started in the worst possible fashion with Greg Hay caught first ball of the innings, and by the time Ollie Newton had claimed captain Young as well, the Stags were off to a rocky beginning of their own at 33/3.
Newton would not see out the day as he picked up an injury at the crease, but in the interim Brad Schmulian and Jesse Ryder, coming off three successive tons at this ground, were charged with steadying the ship.
The fidgety but effective Schmulian in particular got under the Firebirds’ skin as he duelled with Iain McPeake and found the boundary eight times overall before McPeake rejoiced in firing one through his defences at 61 for four.
Ryder had been patient, but followed shortly after, leaving Dane Cleaver (34*) and Doug Bracewell to rustle up an unbeaten 45-run stand for the sixth wicket by stumps, the Stags trailing by just 57 yet both teams looking to tomorrow’s first session to gain the advantage.
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