WELLINGTON FIREBIRDS v CENTRAL STAGS
14 November 2018
Result: Wellington Firebirds won by 58 runs; maintaining top spot with one bonus point
In the first of the centralised segment of The Ford Trophy that has seen all teams converge on Canterbury for an unprecedented three rounds in five days, leaders the Wellington Firebirds produced an emphatic victory to ensure they stayed a nose, or beak even, in front of key challengers the Otago Volts.
They did so by putting runs on the board in fine but windy conditions — captain Hamish Bennett quipping that it would make him and his bowlers feel right at home. Then they turned around and strangled the Stags to the tune of 87 for seven, having fought hard with the bat themselves to set them an above par target of 267.
Even a record eighth-wicket stand of 105 from Central men Ben Wheeler and Ryan McCone, who scored his maiden half century after a previous career best of 14*, couldn't dig the Stags out of the big hole.
They couldn't even stop the Firebirds from tearing away with a bonus point for the net run rate differential in the match, despite getting their team closer to the target than anyone could have imagined.
Wheeler had breezily lofted a six off Neesham into the macrocarpa thicket that divides Lincoln No.3 and Bert Sutcliffe Oval and, despite the best efforts of several Firebirds and staff disappearing head-first and rump-up into the hedge to scour for the white ball, it was never sighted again.
The big talking point was not the gutsy eighth wicket fightback, however, but Firebirds sensation Andrew Fletcher scoring his third Ford Trophy century from just seven games in his stunning rookie season.
The tall, expansive opening batsman revelled in the short boundaries and firm deck of Lincoln No.3 and got the Firebirds' 200 firmly on the board before his dismissal in the 45th oval.
His bold style of play had thwarted a Stags side now missing captain Doug Bracewell and premier swing bowler Seth Rance who had both been called into the New Zealand A squad to play India A.
Navin Patel came into the attack and made the opening breakthrough, but it was hard yakka for the young Stags attack until the more experienced left-armer Ben Wheeler got going with three useful wickets in the back half, including outsmarting and trapping form horse Jimmy Neesham on just 14.
Wheeler's 3-47 was a nice personal double with his later contribution of 56 runs amid the record-breaking eighth wicket stand, while fellow left-arm quick Ryan McCone batted for his life to reach a maiden List A half century, his previous best in 32 appearances having been an unbeaten 14.
McCone is making the most of his opportunities with so many Stags missing on international duties, but so too were the Firebirds who controlled the bulk of the encounter.
Fletcher found initial support from Devon Conway whose classy 57 had helped put on 114 for the second wicket, but if the Firebirds have any concerns it is that there were few further partnerships to write home about.
Lauchie Johns (25 off 14) and his fellow late order infantrymen bashed a few quick runs at the death, but the demoralising damage was done by Fletcher getting away on the Stags and raising the blade yet again.
Perhaps distracted by his achievement, he would be dismissed off the next delivery he faced (a single had been scored in between) but that was little consolation for young spinner Felix Murray, and fellow 20-year-old spinner Dean Foxcroft likewise didn't get time to savour his maiden wicket after making his first appearance at the bowling crease at List A level.
Tom Bruce had stepped into the captaincy role in his first game for the Stags this season after having touched down in New Zealand from UAE just four days earlier, and may still have been feeling the effects.
His opposing skipper Bennett won the toss and his personal form continued as he later went on to take a handy three-fa, eventually coming back to break the late Wheeler-McCone stand that had kept the Stags in with a faint sniff and stretching his lead as the season's top wicket-taker.
Malcolm Nofal also picked up three chipping in with his off-spin and Neesham chimed in with a two-fa as started to look all too easy for the most consistent team of the competition.
After an early finish, the Firebirds drifted across to "the Bert" to watch a much closer finish between the Volts, who have matched their win record to date, and the Aces whose early success in the comp has become a bit of a distant memory as they struggle to to close out the death overs.
The Firebirds and Stags are in for a rematch on Sunday at Bert Sutcliffe Oval (free admission for all games at Lincoln) but in the meantime the Stags will get another chance against the Aces this Friday, the side they humiliated last weekend to the tune of a 170-run victory.
The Firebirds meanwhile drive into Christchurch in Friday morning to play bottom-placed Canterbury at Hagley Oval, with Canterbury well capable of an upset and not yet out of contention.