(CYCLONE-DELAYED MATCH PLAYED AFTER ROUND EIGHT)
CENTRAL STAGS defeated the AUCKLAND ACES by 188 runs
Central Stags became the 2022/23 Plunket Shield champions
Saxton Oval, Nelson
1-4 April, 2023
First innings points (completed):
Central Stags 2 batting, 0 bowling
Auckland Aces 4 bowling, 0 batting
Total points this match: Stags 14, Aces 4
Will Somerville: Final match for Auckland Aces
Ben Horne: 50th first-class match
Ray Toole: career-best bowling 7/57
Central Stags: first season in which both the Plunket Shield and The Ford Trophy were won
This fifth-round match was to have originally been played in Napier in February, before Cyclone Gabrielle hit Hawke's Bay hard. Now the rescheduled fixture was thefinal act of the 2022/23 Domestic season, and would determine whether the Central Stags or Canterbury would lift the coveted Plunket Shield.
Canterbury could do nothing but sit on their hands and watch the livescoring as the Stags hosted the out-of-contention defending champions, the Auckland Aces.
The match was at the Stags' South Island venue, Nelson's Saxton Oval, with no availability at McLean Park in the only possible window to squeeze in the big game.
With the New Zealand A and BLACKCAPS teams both in action elsewhere in the country, both squads had a number of changes - notably Ben Horne stepping in to captain the Auckland Aces once more for Robbie O'Donnell, and Martin Guptill making his only red-ball appearance of the season.
For the Stags, Jayden Lennox would assume the main spinning duties in Ajaz Patel's absence, with Ray Toole, Liam Dudding and Bevan Small spearheading the attack without Bracewell and Randell.
Central needed exactly 14 of the 20 possible points if they were to win the Plunket Shield: in other words, they needed an outright victory as the result. More than four sessions of the match would be lost to poor weather.
Day One was a frustrating one, the teams greeted by a chilly, wet day and no play possible. Daylight saving would end that night, and for the last three days the match would start at the earlier time of 10.00am.
What a difference a day makes. The second day started on time, in bright sunshine, after Aces captain Horne had won the 9.30am toss and send the hosts in.
The Aucklanders made a torrid start with the ball, big Matt Gibson impressive, with early success.
He'd conceded only a single off his opening three-over spell, then came back on in the 12th to pick up the first breakthrough of the match with Jack Boyle trapped.
Gibson had another huge wicket in his next over, Stags captain Greg Hay caught at 19/2.
Younger opener Curtis Heaphy bided his time. He began to build an innings with Brad Schmulian, but the latter would depart in soul-destroying fashion at 72/3.
Heaphy had slammed a drive straight back at bowler Ross ter Braak who stuck up a hand trying to catch the ball, which defied his grasp but deflected on to the non-striker's stumps. Schmulian was a step out of his ground, and couldn't jam his bat down quickly enough to avoid being run out.
The Stags were in a spot, going to lunch at 78/3 with Dane Cleaver fresh at the crease.
Cleaver fell victim to Will Somerville in the latter's farewell match after the break - but if anyone was going to take the Aces on, it was the man in form, Josh Clarkson, on his own home turf.
Clarkson and anchorman Heaphy put on 66 runs together, Clarkson dominating the scoring and accelerating quickly.
Heaphy was somewhat dramatically run out on 56, but Clarkson kept going with Will Clark. He tonked two sixes off a Somerville over and brought up his half century off just 37 balls.
His third six came off Louis Delport and, half an hour before tea, the big allrounder looked on course for a second century in the space of three weeks.
But just before the break, Delport got his revenge: Clarkson was stumped on 79 (67 balls), at 226/6.
Whilst frustrating for Clarkson, he had performed a much needed role for his team who would be able to march on to declare before stumps.
Clark (38 off 61) and Jayden Lennox (an unbeaten 33*) injected cameos into the last session before Hay called them in at 296/9, after 83 overs.
The Stags had taken the two bonus points they needed, and now the captain had his eye on hurrying the match along quickly to get a result in the two and bit days left.
By stumps, the Aces trailed by 266 on the first innings, Martin Guptill and Will O'Donnell still together at 30/0 after 11 overs in the streaky, late afternoon sun.
Like four seasons in one match, the weather bowled another curve ball at the teams on moving day as light rain returned to Saxton Oval, just before play was due to begin.
An early lunch would again be taken, no play possible in the morning session.
The livestream camera also came to grief in the rain, and NZC apologises that there was no NZC YouTube coverage or scorecard highlights of the third and fourth days' play.
The teams got on at 2pm, chilly mists replaced again by warm sunshine, and the track getting flat as it basked in the last rays of summer. It would revert by the end of the day, when gloomy slabs of dark clouds travelling over the hilltops would end the day for light.
But enough of weather reports.
Auckland's openers picked up from where they had left off, Martin Guptill all class and crisplness as he eased his way to the cusp of a half century.
With Will O'Donnell, he put on 87 for the first wicket before becoming the only wicket to fall, in the middle session, at 87/1, caught off Jayden Lennox.
Quinn Sunde had spent a long time padded up, and enjoyed himself once he was in the middle at first drop.
He added a further 74* with O'Donnell for the second wicket, reaching an unbeaten 39* before Ben Horne declared at 161/1.
O'Donnell had top-scored with his 76 not out, after more than three hours at the crease - in between the interruptions.
Captain Horne declared the first innings 135 runs behind, with time of the essence if either team was to get the season-ending win they wanted to make the last evening together as a team taste sweeter.
With three and a bit sessions and 16 regulation overs left in the day's play, ultimately the Stags would get just 10 overs before weather again foreclosed on the proceedings.
On a placid surface, it was time enough to race to 56/0, the Stags leading overall overnight by 191 with all wickets intact.
The ball would be in their court tomorrow to declare. Greg Hay, who had shifted up from first drop, would resume on 18* and Jack Boyle 37* off just 33 balls.
At last a perfectly clear morning dawned for the Stags - and it would end as a stunning, near-perfect day for the hosts, after a brilliant, career-best bag to their strong young left-arm seamer, Ray Toole.
On a flat pitch, the Stags firstly attacked their second innings with the bat, looking to score quickly (after a 15-minute delay for dew) in order to have enough time to dangle a juicy carrot for the Aces in their final response.
Hay was an early wicket for former BLACKCAPS Test spinner Somerville in his last game, while Boyle pressed on to 47 at run-a-ball pace - before he was caught by Gibson.
Looking for those quick runs in the sun, the Stags elevated hard hitter Josh Clarkson to first drop, but it backfired when he was stumped second ball to give a jubilant Somerville another.
But the Somerville fairytale ending was not to be, as the strong youngster Will Clark walked out to the middle and smashed the spinner's figures to bits.
Joining Dane Cleaver, after a few sighters Clark looked as if he had his sights set on the game's fastest first-class fifty as he threw everything at the ball - and connected.
He slogged the sixth, eighth and ninth balls that he faced for six, taking 21 off the Somerville over (Cleaver also contributing a single).
He would blast another two sixes off Somerville's next over as well, while Worker had tried to stop him - catching the ball before but hurtling over the rope in the process.
Clark reached 41 off just 16 deliveries before Guptill got his hands around the next opportunity, in the same over, at 135/4.
A barnstorming 60-run partnership had been tonked off just 26 balls with Cleaver - who carried on to 37 not out in the handful of overs that would remain before Stags captain Hay again called his batsmen in.
After declaring midway through the first session at 165/5, Hay had been able to set the Aces an adventurous chase of 292 to win.
With the conditions evidently flat, the expectation now was that two and a half sessions would be needed to have half a chance of getting those 10 decisive wickets.
But on a lifeless wicket, Toole found some swing, once again, in the big match.
Two games earlier, the Stags had pulled off a remarkable win against Canterbury in Rangiora by ripping through their second innings wickets, and had done it without their leading players.
That confidence remained fresh in their minds as Toole and Liam Dudding led the pace attack in the crucial innings - and proceeded to take all 10 wickets between them.
Toole had three, and Dudding his first, before lunch, with the Aces in early trouble at 47/4.
Toole had just picked up a big third wicket in Martin Guptill. Then he dotted down with his first delivery after lunch before claiming his bag with the next two balls to make it 50/6.
Somerville managed to avoid becoming a hat-trick victim in his final knock, but several overs later became Toole's sixth wicket.
Richly experienced former Stags opener Worker was batting at five for Auckland, and when Dudding bowled him at 78/8, the Stags knew they had one hand on the trophy.
It took just a further five overs to put the other one on it, just before the clock struck 2.30pm on the final day.
Toole claimed the last two tailenders to see the Stags win their first Plunket Shield national championship since 2018/19, and add the trophy to a cabinet already occupied by the one-day Ford Trophy that the team had won in Napier the previous week.
It was the first time the Central Stags had won those two trophies in the same season.
For frustrated Canterbury, their own Plunket Shield hopes went up in a curl of smoke in the same instant.
They had been beaten by Northern Brave in the Dream11 Super Smash final, beaten by the Stags for The Ford Trophy, and now the same team had relegated them to runner-up in the first-class department for 2022/23 as well.
Toole said the Stags drew on their experience in Rangiora, where they had rattled through Canterbury's second innings on the way to a key victory by taking six Canterbury wickets for just 14 runs on a pitch that had slightly more life.
"We knew we had done it before.
"With the weather and rain here, when we started off this match in Nelson, the deck was a bit soft and slow, and if anything we thought we might get catches in front.
"But on the last day, suddenly there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and I think the sun hardened it up a bit. The nicks started carrying through, and we got the ball swinging as well, which we had in the first innings as well, but now with a bit more pace in it.
"With 'Duddsy's' spell, we kept the pressure on from both ends, and it was just a matter of leaving nothing out there. To lift the Plunket Shield is unbelievably special, and it's something I've personally strived for since debuting. It's a very sweet feeling."
In his home town of Nelson, veteran captain Greg Hay became the first Stags skipper since Vic Pollard in 1969 to lift the 116-year-old trophy twice as the captain, and after having missed the entire first half of the summer with a broken arm.
Toole finished with 31 wickets for the season at 22.96, behind only Otago Volt Jacob Duffy (32 at 29.09).
Northern Districts top order batter Bharat Popli was the overall top batsman, with 819 runs from eight matches ahead of Canterbury captain Cole McConchie (738) and Stag Tom Bruce (705) who captained the first half of the championship-winning campaign.
It was a come-from-behind finish to a campaign that had been heartbreakingly interrupted by Cyclone Gabrielle and saw the Stags go for a month without any cricket in the peak of the season.
They finished level on 101 points with Canterbury, but were elevated by the second separator, the number of wins; the Stags having won five of their eight matches and Canterbury four.
Canterbury had met the Stags twice in the uneven competition, and neither time had they tasted victory. In October, the Stags had staved them off for a dramatic draw at this same ground, first match of the season.
How crucial that last Stags wicket in October would prove - Blair Tickner and, you guessed it, Ray Toole having held the fort with the bat whilst nine down.
Despite the defeat, the Auckland Aces climbed one place in the final standings to finish fourth for 2022/23.