Saxton Oval was tinder dry, the surrounding hills far browner than usual for December and the temperature parked in the high twenties. Batting weather, and with the Central Stags’ form run-maker Jesse Ryder going up against Canterbury Kings drawcard Ben Stokes this was a head-to-head battle to savour.
Last season’s front-runners the Stags were coming off a high-scoring loss in Auckland in the opening round and another loss here would have upped the early pressure to perform. But Ryder wasn’t about to let them down, once again taking command with the bat on a fresh, easy-paced pitch after his captain Will Young did him the service of winning the toss.
Back on the same ground where he had scored a red-ball century in each innings earlier in the summer, the superb striker of the ball made sure that the Stags would not suffer for having lost three players — his regular opening partner George Worker, Doug Bracewell and Adam Milne — to the BLACKCAPS against a fresh-look Kings side that included two players on T20 debut, wrist spinner Blake Coburn and Andrew Hazeldine.
Ryder found the boundary almost immediately and just kept going, his half century reached in just 19 balls, four early sixes included. A few more balls and, incredibly, Tim Seifert’s newly minted New Zealand domestic record for the fastest T20 century was under threat as Ryder eased into the 80s in the blink of an eye.
Alas for Ryder he didn’t get hold of one of 84 (after just 40 balls, six sixes in all), lofting the ball to long off to become a massive maiden wicket for a grateful Coburn.
But the Stags’ man had done his job, powering his team into the 12th over — and they had lost only one other wicket before captain Young came in at first drop to add a half century of his own (53 off 31), just his third in this format.
By the time spinner Tim Johnston bowled Young at the three-quarter mark of the innings, the Stags were well set for a big total at 160 for three, and even with opposing captain Andrew Ellis picking up a big quick brace in Dane Cleaver and Tom Bruce — extending his domestic competition record to 99 T20 career wickets, big Nelson-raised lad Josh Clarkson was a formidable presence at the death with an unbeaten 28 off 15 balls in combination with a quick cameo from Ben Wheeler, the pair walking off to the tune of 213 for five from the 20 overs.
That spelt a fairly daunting chase in hot conditions on a big ground, with a breeze mercifully making both those last two elements a little less brutal in the middle.
The Kings were always in it despite early wickets, Seth Rance having struck in both of his first two overs, removing Michael Pollard with a vicious inswinger.
Then Bevan Small delighted in getting a rampaging Ben Stokes caught in the deep on 17 with just his second delivery in the seventh over.
The purple brigade found the boundary often enough to keep the required run rate tamed (relatively) to 12 or 13, without spiralling out of the stratosphere, and the home tension built as Cam Fletcher dug in for a brilliant 74 off 39 (with half a dozen sixes), looking every bit like he was going to ton up as he received excellent support from the increasingly impressive Cole McConchie (below).
Ajaz Patel was unlucky, two stumpings missed as the pair cracked on to their highest individual scores in the T20 format as well as a record T20 fifth wicket stand for the Kings against Central of 116.
It meant the Kings went the distance, even after Blair Tickner broke the dangerous stand that had brewed from unexpected quarters. Needing 14 off the last over, the equation was shortened by a couple of Ben Wheeler wides, but ultimately Wheeler was good enough to close it out and cemented the tight eight-run win by bowling Johnston with his last delivery.
The two teams will meet again for a Round Three rematch at Rangiora’s Mainpower Oval on Friday.