It was big hits versus smart spinners at Eden Park Outer Oval as a recharged Wellington Firebirds unit very nearly pulled off a raid on the Aces’ famous fortress.
The crowd was treated to a thrilling start from both teams with opener Luke Ronchi marking his first Burger King Super Smash game of the summer with a brilliant century off just 45 balls, equalling both retired Central Stag Jamie How and South African Richard Levi for the second fastest T20 century in New Zealand.
On a top deck, entertainer Ronchi was on fire immediately, slamming Sam Curran’s first delivery for six and quickly taking the Birds to 32 without loss — opening partner Hamish Marshall hardly having had to face a ball as Ronchi scored all of the runs, the only other contribution to the card an extra.
The Aces threw a surprise at the pair by introducing Ben Horne — normally a keeper/batsman — into the bowling attack, but that couldn’t stop the 50-stand coming up in a fast 3.3 overs... and that was even before Ronchi started pelting the nuts into the Mobil station across the road.
The recently retired BLACKCAP smashed his 50 off just 22 balls (the Firebirds 54 without loss) and survived a close call shortly after, a runout appeal turned down on review before leggie Tarun Nethula came into the attack to try to stem the carnage.
Auckland Aces coach Mark O’Donnell is known to note that when Nethula bowls well in white-ball, the Aces generally have a good day out — and the experienced spinner was to the fore with both his bowling and fielding under pressure.
He quickly took out Hamish Marshall with an absolute skier landing safely in his hands for a caught and bowled, Ronchi however still looking all but unstoppable on 63 off just 27 balls at the other end.
Ronchi punched an Ollie Newton delivery onto the netting roof of the practice nets, eliciting a new ball, then into the Mobil station again on a ground he made look far too small for his talents.
The lightning maiden T20 century came up in the same style with a six — this time a class lofted straight drive — to carry him to 102 off 45 balls, but young Teja Nidamanuru — fresh into the attack — had a comeback very next ball, finally getting him dismissed with Nethula diving forward to execute a very careful low catch on the boundary.
Ronchi had ensured the Firebirds had got to a heady 129/2 by just the 11th over, but now the Aces got back into the game with Tom Blundell a big quick wicket for Nethula, and Samit Patel very nearly going caught and bowled to Nidamanuru soon after.
The spinners backed themselves against the short boundaries and earned six of the wickets to fall, dangling the lure just enough, and putting the brakes on the Firebirds’ fast start as the visitors tapered off to a score of 206 for seven — good, but never insurmountable, on a sunny Outer Oval.
The Birds’ attack was without both Hamish Bennett and Logan van Beek (both injured) and punters might have backed a returning Martin Guptill and Glenn Phillips to make a punishing start of their own.
Instead it was Mark Chapman who stood up with some special clean hitting after Phillips fell early, Guptill almost reduced to a spectator as “Chappy” produced one of the biggest hits of the game, carting Iain McPeake over the Western Stand to race to 45 off just 16 balls!
His half ton was clinched with a six to take the Aces to 78 for one, Guptill meanwhile spending half an hour in support before he was caught off Anurag Verma on 29.
Things got interesting indeed then when two wickets suddenly came in Newton’s ninth over, Chapman on 64 throwing away a golden chance to go big by going for a mad run instead that simply begged for a runout, which the Firebirds happily executed.
Then Aces captain Craig Cachopa was caught: 103 for four and the Firebirds were breathing again with two new men in Ben Horne and Robbie O’Donnell at the crease.
Neither would make an impact as County spinners Patel and Patel inc. zeroed in, but importantly given the Aces' tailend exposure young Sam Curran stuck around for an impressive 27-ball 50 under pressure to keep the Aces in with a chance.
Incredibly, the match went right down to the final ball, Tarun Nethula left needing two to tie or three to win. Not renowned with the blade in hand, Nethula managed to put Iain McPeake to the rope to seal a stunning two-wicket match for the home crowd.