Luck of the draw in decisive match

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Wellington Firebirds won the 2023/24 Plunket Shield championship


Seddon Park, Hamilton

24-27 March 2024

The captains shake hands as the last day is called | PHOTOSPORT


Wellington Firebirds: 8

Northern Districts: 7

Central Stags: 20

Otago Volts: 5

Canterbury: 17

Auckland Aces: 5



Tom Blundell - 15th first-class century (11th for Firebirds)

Freddy Walker - career best bowling (4/112)

Logan van Beek - 2,000 first-class career runs

Tim Seifert - seventh first-class century (sixth for Northern Districts)


With the serendipity of the season's draw, inked in months earlier, this match had started as a 'Plunket Shield final' as the last two contenders for the national first-class title assembled to face each other in Hamilton.

But the riveting scenario turned into a damp squib as wet weather ultimately extended Northern Districts' long-running drought in the red-ball format, while the Firebirds held on to their crucial points lead in a rain-affected drawn finale.

Wellington Firebirds skipper Tom Blundell received the shield from NDCA Life Member Dave Hoskin, who bowled the very first ball for Northern Districts at this ground when his team entered the Plunket Shield in December 1956


Meanwhile in Napier, defending champions the Central Stags were left ruing missed opportunities againt both of these sides. With the Hamilton match ending in a draw, the Stags were left to contemplate the thought that just one more outright - and they had come close against both these teams - would have secured a successful defence.

In the final analysis, the Firebirds and ND both finished the summer having won half of their matches (four wins apiece). The Stags and Canterbury (the two top teams from the previous season) had finished with three wins, and the Otago Volts and Auckland Aces one each - with the Aces' sole, shock victory over the Stags in the penultimate round having now gone down as a killer blow.


First, to recap. Visitors the Wellington Firebirds had headed into this decisive match with a small lead at the top of the points table: a four-point buffer over title-starved ND.

It was statistically unlikely, given the way most matches go, that Northern Districts would end up overtaking that lead on first innings points alone - with both sides able to accrue eight points across each of the first inningses. So, ND effectively needed to beat the Firebirds outright for those precious 12 extra points if they were to win the coveted championship title.

But things would not go to plan for ND, and it started with losing the toss.

Jeet Raval tosses the coin | PHOTOSPORT

That was after a ground delay that cut into the first morning as autumn brought its temperamental dews, showers and clammy weather.

Ground delays can be frustrating for teams, upsetting the normal routines and rhythms of player and team preparation, and the timing of warm-ups.

Uncertainty toys with the nerves. When finally the two captains, Jeet Raval for the hosts and Tom Blundell for the visitors, strode out to the middle with Match Referee and former BLACKCAP Shayne O'Connor, it was Blundell's nerves that were instantly mollified by calling correctly, and he chose to bat.

He would later produce the most significant knock of the innings.


But we're already getting ahead of ourselves. By stumps, the Firebirds were 282/9, with captain Blundell - batting as the number six - unbeaten on 64*.

Neither side had truly dominated the opening day, and neither side had performed poorly, either. Pretty even contest, you might say.

Freddy Walker | PHOTOSPORT

ND had bagged the full set of four bowling points, inching them up the points table. The Firebirds had two batting points and, with just the 94 overs having been bowled so far, there was potential for more on that front to maintain their pre-match buffer.

The match had got off to a rocket of a start when BLACKCAPS captain Tim Southee - having eschewed taking a well-earned break after his international endeavours in order to try to help his lifelong Domestic side win the Shield - struck with just the third ball of his opening over: a classic Southee outswinger to Nick Greenwood that had him gobbled up by first slip Raval at 1/1.

Catch, taken | PHOTOSPORT

Of Southee's 500+ first-class wickets, it was his 149th for ND. But there the tally would remain, his first and last of this rare appearance in the national competition.

After that early setback, the Wellington top order went about taking control of the rest of the first session, for the most part.

An important century stand | PHOTOSPORT

Gareth Severin, a standout 24-year-old right-hander, had enjoyed an impressive summer for his team, in these early days of his career. He and Tim Robinson both reached fifties as they marshalled a century stand for the second wicket.


Southee had opened the attack with Scott Kuggeleijn, a strong pace combo for ND, but Raval waited only until the ninth over to introduce spin, Southee swapping ends as he returned soon after.

It had been a duly cautious start from the Wellingtonians, but now they began to latch onto a few boundaries, Robinson bringing up his 74-ball fifty with a lusty cut to the fence off Freddy Walker at 97/1.


He'd earlier pelted Walker's brother for six, and ND was getting itchy for a breakthrough.

A few overs later, one brought two. Robinson was caught feathering an attempted pull shot off Kuggeleijn by Southee on 64, a canny field placement from Raval ending the 116-run second wicket partnership.

Just 10 balls later, new man Nick Kelly was caught by slipper Bharat Popli off Joe Walker, and suddenly the side was 122/3 as everyone wandered in for lunch.


The second session began with Severing rebuilding with Mo Abbas, against the twin spectre of the Walker brothers.

A switch back to pace brought another wicket as Raval shuffled Kuggeleijn and then Southee back into the attack, as Freddy Walker changed ends. The move worked for the spinner who got the big wicket of Severin, caught feathering behind on 80, in that very over, at 173/4.

He struck again in his very next over, Abbas caught in the slips. Blundell was joined by Michael Bracewell needing to stop the rot.

Unhappily for the Firebirds, Bracewell's stint was short one. The big left-hander very nearly escaped being caught off Joe Walker, Popli bobbling the catch at first attempt yet, quick as a flash, stretching out to his right to make a good reflex save.

One half of the Walker spin attack, Joe Walker | PHOTOSPORT

The Firebirds soon lost their fourth wicket in the damaging session, Nathan Smith bowled by Joe Walker as the spinning brothers did all the damage between them.

By tea, the hosts had their quarry 227/7 and will have been well pleased with their progress - with the sun having been beating down on a steamy afternoon.

But the Firebirds bat deep, and Blundell had Logan van Beek for company as the third session began. He's reached 49* by the time the umpires called for the new ball, and safely passed 50* against it.


He had, however, lost the services of van Beek in the interim - caught off a Walker brother, as was the pattern of the afternoon. Then Peter Younghusband had almost immediately been caught off the other Walker.

The brothers now had seven wickets between them, with Joe in the frame for a bag - and the Firebirds nine down at 246.

But by stumps, last man Ben Sears had weathered 51 deliveries, and Blundell was still in charge.


Weather. Here it was again, showers messing up a good game of cricket. The entire opening session was washed out, the teams taking an early lunch.


When finally the visitors at 282/9 after lunch, ND set their sights on wrapping things up quickly as Freddy Walker and sharp quick Matt Fisher began the second day's play with the ball.

Blundell and Sears were having none of that.


They batted for a further nine overs, enough time for Blundell to spank four sixes and reach a century as they slathered on a further 41 runs, as well a handy third batting bonus point for getting up past 300 inside 110 overs.


Blundell's century had contained nine boundaries as well as his flurry of four sixes, off 156 balls. He brought up the three figures with the ninth of those boundaries, slapping Freddy Walker for a lofted straight drive.


The very next ball, Walker had his revenge, ending Blundell's and the Firebirds' innings with a return catch. The Wellington skipper had made 103, while Ben Sears had batted for more than two hours in support for his unbeaten 13* in a 77-run 10th wicket stand - one of just three partnerships of substance.


The Firebirds had 323 on the scoreboard; now it was ND's turn.

They got the better start. Openers Raval and Henry Cooper reached 45 together before the first breakthrough as Raval's lean summer continued, falling to a slip catch off Bracewell. It was another retrieved bobble, this time by van Beek.


Already with a couple of sixes in the bank off Younghusband, Cooper had dominated the opening stand, contributing 35 of those runs, but Popli now became the aggressor.

The lithe first drop picked off the four balls and took a six off the leg-spinner himself. Yet the stand for the second wicket would reach only 30 before Cooper (44) was on his way straight after tea, having top-edged van Beek.


Joe Carter joined Popli as the shadows lengthened, two experienced dangermen. They took the hosts past 100, but by stumps both would be gone.


Carter departed at 140/3, a second catch for van Beek, this time off a jubilant Younghusband as he broke the threatening  65-run stand.

Popli marks his fifty | PHOTOSPORT

A little while later, Bracewell struck again to remove Popli on 60, superbly caught down the leg side by Kelly, after more than two hours, at 145/4.

The spinners in this match were having a field day.


Tim Seifert was joined by nightwatchman Joe Walker to take the hosts to 152/4 at stumps, ND trailing by 171 in the first dig as the teams hit the midway point of the game.


Another day, another ground delay - as wet weather continued to dissolve the full allotted time in the match.

But happily the showers would soon be on their way this time, allowing the first session to get underway, Seifert and Walker looking to carry on their overnight stand.

By lunch, Seifert was still there on 62 not out. Walker had not added to his score as Nathan Smith made the first breakthrough of the day at 154/5.

Northern was in a spot of bother, and needed an innings. Seifert answered the call.

With the naturally positive Brett Hampton at the other end, the score was soon bustling along. They tucked into eight sixes between them - both Sears and the spinners suffering - in their 125-run stand for the sixth wicket.

Hampton, in a season in which he had finally cracked his maiden first-class ton, had galloped to 70 off 78 balls before the 85 over proved a big one for Smith.

The allrounder struck twice in the space of three balls, first claiming Hampton who slapped a catch straight to Bracewell, then Freddy Walker for a two-ball duck as the ball whistled through his middle stump at 279/7.

Now, in the middle session, the sun shining on a placid deck, Seifert was joined by Scott Kuggeleijn who provided key support in a 71-run stand for the eighth, while Seifert blasted away at better than run-a-ball, getting himself within sight of a century.

He'd hit six sixes and five fours as Bracewell loped in for the last ball of the 94th over, Seifert quickly in position to slash a sweep to the boundary for his hundred, off 133 deliveries in all. Tit for tat.

He was out soon afterwards attempting an ambitious reverse sweep against Younghusband for 104, and it triggered a quick wrap of the innings as Southee was yorked by van Beek and then trapped Matt Fisher for good measure.

At 362 all out in 98.1 overs, ND had managed to pocked all four batting bonus points, but the Firebirds had done just as well with the ball to keep their noses in front where it counted, despite conceding a modest first innings lead of 39 runs.

The change of innings ushered in the tea break, and the final session on the penultimate day would turn out to be the last of the battle between the two title contenders. ND of course now needed an outright victory if they were to be the season champions, while the Firebirds could pull it off with a draw.

They simply needed not to lose.


By stumps, the Firebirds were four down, and just 127/4 despite a good start from openers Greenwood and Severin.

They'd put on 72 inside just 16 overs, but both men fell before they'd reached a half ton.

Joe Walker trapped Greenwood for his fifth wicket of the match, then did the same to Severin for his sixth at 81/2.

It was a spinfest at Seddon, Raval using Cooper as well as himself, in addition to the Walker brothers. Raval was soon in the wickets column himself, as the evening shadows draped themselves across the pitch and he bowled Robinson on 44 at 122/3.

Freddy Walker then had his team celebrating again as he outfoxed nightwatchman Peter Younghusband, bringing a second nightwatchman in Ben Sears to the middle for the last two balls before bad light ended play.

Nick Kelly had meanwhile picked his way to 28, the Firebirds now leading by just 88 overall, and the ND spinners hungry for their last six wickets.


Fat raindrops, inky clouds, and cricket are three things that are not meant to go together. But what sport would it be without the complexities and vicissitudes of weather to provide an ever-changing backdrop?

The final morning of the 2023/24 season, a summer that had begun with a batch of fresh hopes and goals back in October was now here.

The Firebirds were still unbeaten, Northern Districts hoping to get a chance to change that - but their hometown weather was resolutely not playing ball.

May hay while the sun shines, as they say.

The teams waited in their adjacent viewing areas, staring at the grey weather. Killing time. Waiting some more, watching the occasional meander of umpires on a mission to inspect things that needed inspecting in the middle.

Taking an early lunch, after twice having looked a chance to get back on. Three more heavy showers after the meal break, and three more rounds of dashed hopes when the skies temporarily cleared.

Finally the umpires made their way to the respective captains. There was officially no further possibility of play, on a day that had seen none.

The match was over, and the Wellington Firebirds, undefeated, were the new Plunket Shield champions.

Northern Districts would have to try again, next season, to break their drought.

For now, it was time to shake hands and reflect on a good summer, and drown out the sound of the Firebirds' ebullient stomping as the victory song rang through the changing room walls one last time.






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