Wellington Firebirds coach Bruce Edgar and always competitive spinner Jeetan Patel both picked the Central Stags as the team to beat after the green machine kept on humming at the Basin Reserve on Super Sunday.
On a scorching capital day, both teams were in a must-win scenario in order to make it beyond into the playoffs, but it was the Stags who clinched it with their third smashing win on the bounce.
The Stags had started the calendar year second to last on points, but have got their act together when it counts — on the home straight.
Conversely, the Firebirds will be left ruing both their one-point defeat to the Knights and a lack of potency with the bat in front of a solid Basin crowd.
Stags captain Will Young had been running hot at the coin toss and had no hesitation in batting on a used deck on a day when the temperature was already in the mid-twenties by breakfast-time.
The class combo of Jesse Ryder and George Worker then produced the good together, settling in to begin pelting the ball to the rope and over it as they slathered on a 96-run opening stand in 9.3 overs.
Ryder was back and aggressive against the Firebirds, lifting some big sixes into the terraces en route to a half century that raced up off just 31 balls, while Worker’s 38 likewise came at good pace before Jeetan Patel made the breakthrough.
With the luxury of three spinners through the middle the hosts stemmed some damage over the next five overs, a good third quarter from the Firebirds that cost the quick wicket of the Stags’ in-form captain, together with dangerous strikers Josh Clarkson (who was sent off for a precautionary scan after being struck in the arm) and Dane Cleaver.
Unfortunately for the Firebirds that still left BLACKCAP Tom Bruce and he was in no mood to muck around, smashing his 46 off just 20 balls — a whirlwind innings that ultimately ensured the Stags went well above par with a total of 194 for six.
All eyes turned now to Luke Ronchi, the power-hitting star on whom the local hopes likely depended, but the Stags all leapt into the air as Bevan Small safely collected the catch off Ben Wheeler to send Ronchi back to the sheds early for the second game in a row.
It was Wheeler’s first ball and before long we had the other opener, Hamish Marshall caught by Seth Rance off his next over and a useful 2-10 for his opening spell.
The Birds needed to find momentum quickly but the reverse happened, Tom Blundell and import Samit Patel rebuilding, but just not quickly enough for anyone’s liking bar Stags supporters.
They shared a 47-run stand for the third before Blundell was caught off Tom Bruce’s first over, another grab from Rance in the deep as the Stags’ fielding mojo came to the fore.
Christian Leopard had taken the field as a sub for Clarkson and his all-round athleticism was to the fore as he slid in for the catch that finally dismissed Sammy Patel — a grab that could easily have gone wrong with two fielders converging.
Patel’s 38 had taken the Firebirds to 114 but with three quarters of the chase gone and the depth no match for the Stags’, their season hopes were about to go the same way.
After another class display in all departments the Stags now head to Auckland to face the Aces in Wednesday’s sudden death Elimination Final, however at third on the points table they must also be hoping Auckland’s weather forecast plays ball.