Opposing captains Michael Bracewell and Greg Hay. PHOTOSPORT

Match of the season?

Unbeaten this season, unbeaten last season and having already smashed the CDCA record for most consecutive games without a defeat, New Zealand’s defending first-class champions the Central Stags head into tomorrow's round four of the $60,000 Plunket Shield national championship with history on the horizon — if they can keep up their hot streak this summer.

The Stags have left the previous Central record in their wake. PHOTOSPORT

The Stags’ latest innings victory, against the Volts Alexandra, has swept them to 20 games without a loss since October 2016. The previous Central Stags record was a mere dozen, while the New Zealand record for most consecutive domestic first-class matches without a loss is 24 — set by Wellington (now the Wellington Firebirds) between 1984/85 and 1986/87.

With five games left in the 2018/19 Plunket Shield, the Stags have a chance to reach those lofty heights this season — if they can get past a strong Wellington Firebirds team in Nelson over the next four days, that is.

Devon Conway and Michael Bracewell form a potent pair. PHOTOSPORT

The Firebirds — exciting winners of this season's one-day Ford Trophy title — and the Stags slugged out a neck-and-neck, two-horse race for the historic Shield last season, with the Stags clinching supremacy on the penultimate day of the season.

A couple of rounds earlier, the two teams had locked horns in a bitterly hard fought draw at the Basin Reserve, a match that would go down as one of the tightest and most riveting clashes of the season.

Blair Tickner took a hat-trick the last time the first-class teams met at Saxton Oval. PHOTOSPORT

The Firebirds have all guns loaded for tomorrow’s encounter at Saxton Oval, bringing back New Zealand A stars Hamish Bennett, Jimmy Neesham and introducing highly rated Rachin Ravindra — the New Zealand Under-19 player who was picked for New Zealand A and made his first-class debut before he’d even had a chance to play for the Firebirds this season.

Rachin Ravindra is in line to make his first-class debut. MBUTCHER/NZC

Roll in BLACKCAP Tom Blundell to their squad of regular performers and it’s likely to present the toughest challenge to the Central Stags yet.

Having taken 55 from a total available 60 points so far this season, the Stags are coming off their innings victory with a still depleted side, missing NZ A stars Seth Rance and Doug Bracewell (both being rested after a heavy workload) as well as Adam Milne, Ben Wheeler, Ben Smith, Christian Leopard and Bevan Small, who are all on the journey back from injuries.

Ajaz Patel and Ross Taylor are meanwhile on BLACKCAPS duty while Will Young’s maiden call-up to the Test squad has scotched any Central hopes of the return of the form NZ A batsman, however they do regain the service of George Worker who impressed against India A in the second one-day match of the A series at the weekend.

George Worker returns to open with unbeaten skipper Hay. MBUTCHER

Central’s run of 20 games without a loss is the third most in New Zealand domestic history. After Wellington’s record comes Auckland with two instances of 23 games without a loss — between 1978/79 and 1981/82, and also between 1934/35 and 1943/44.

The record does not officially include the 2016/17 abandonment at the Basin Reserve, a match between the Wellington Firebirds and Central Stags that was not played amid aftershocks following the Kaikōura earthquake. Until last summer’s title-winning run, the previous Central Stags record since the team’s inception in the early 1950s was 12 matches, achieved between 1966/67 and 1967/68 and again between 1991/92 and 1992/93.

The Stags head home to Nelson's Saxton Oval as one of two undefeated teams this summer, holding a 13-point lead over chasers Northern Districts as the race for the $60,000 Shield hits the midway mark.

ND is well placed in second spot on the table. MBUTCHER

ND now has two wins and a draw after a surprise 98-run victory over the Wellington Firebirds earlier this week, having bowled out their quarry on the last afternoon in Hamilton as spinner Joe Walker claimed just his second first-class five-wicket-bag.

Had they reached their 241 target, the Firebirds would now be occupying second slot on the table, but the capital's cricketers remain very much a live threat as they head to Nelson in third spot and eager to become the first team since October 2016 to inflict a loss on the green machine.

Shortened from 10 to eight rounds this season, the Plunket Shield will go into recess at the conclusion of this round when all teams will switch to T20 mode for the 2018/19 Burger King Super Smash. The home straight of the Plunket Shield will then recommence on 21 February 2019.

ROUND FOUR

CENTRAL STAGS v WELLINGTON FIREBIRDS

Saxton Oval, Stoke, Nelson, 10.30am | 13-16 December 2018

CENTRAL STAGS: Tom Bruce, Josh Clarkson, Dane Cleaver (w), Dean Foxcroft, Willem Ludick, Ryan McCone, Navin Patel, Kieran Noema-Barnett, Brad Schmulian, Blair Tickner, George Worker

WELLINGTON FIREBIRDS: Hamish Bennett, Tom Blundell, Devon Conway, Iain McPeake, Jimmy Neesham, Ollie Newton, Malcolm Nofal, Jeetan Patel, Rachin Ravindra, Ben Sears, Luke Woodcock

OTAGO VOLTS v CANTERBURY

University of Otago Oval, Dunedin 10.30am | 13-16 December 2018

OTAGO VOLTS: Jacob Duffy (c), Matt Bacon, John Finnie, Camden Hawkins, Shawn Hicks, Jack Hunter, Anaru Kitchen, Mitch Renwick (w), Hamish Rutherford, Nathan Smith, Josh Tasman-Jones, Christi Viljoen

CANTERBURY: Cole McConchie (c), Chad Bowes, Leo Carter, Michael Davidson, Cam Fletcher, Andrew Hazeldine, Kyle Jamieson, Ken McClure, Fraser Sheat, Henry Shipley, Will Williams, Theo van Woerkom

AUCKLAND ACES v NORTHERN DISTRICTS

Eden Park Outer Oval, Auckland 10.30am | 13-16 December 2018

AUCKLAND ACES: Robbie O'Donnell (c), Finn Allen, Graeme Beghin, Jamie Brown, Mark Chapman, Danru Ferns, Ben Horne (w), Ben Lister, Matt McEwan, Glenn Phillips, Sean Solia, Will Somerville

NORTHERN DISTRICTS: Daniel Flynn (c), James Baker, Joe Carter, Henry Cooper, Anton Devcich, Nick Kelly, Scott Kuggeleijn, Daryl Mitchell, Brett Randell, Tim Seifert, Ish Sodhi, Joe Walker  

All matches are FREE admission                   

Plunket Shield full schedule

Competition Winner: Central Stags

Played W L D T A OIMW OIMT Bat Bowl TOTAL Net RPW
1 Central Stags 8 5 2 1 0 0 0 0 20 26 106 7.36
2 Canterbury 8 4 2 1 0 1 0 0 15 22 93 0.72
3 Auckland Aces 8 3 2 3 0 0 0 0 14 27 77 6.95
4 Northern Districts 8 3 2 3 0 0 0 0 8 28 72 1.37
5 Wellington Firebirds 8 1 3 3 0 1 0 0 19 23 62 3.32
6 Otago Volts 8 1 6 1 0 0 0 0 8 21 41 -21.92

Order in the Table Determined by: 1. Total Points, 2. Number of Wins, 3. Net Runs Per Wicket (NRPW - RPW For minus RPW Against over the whole competition)

Points Awarded: Won - 12, Lost - 0, Draw - 0, Tied - 6, Abandoned - 2
One Innings Match Won (OIMW - match won that started with 10 hours or less playing time remaining) - 6, One Innings Match Tie (OIMT) - 3
Batting Points (Bat) - First Innings only up to 110 overs - first point at 200 runs, second point at 250 runs, third point at 300 runs, fourth point at 350 runs
Bowling Points (Bowl) - First Innings only up to 110 overs - first point at 3 wickets, second point at 5 wickets, third point at 7 wickets, fourth point at 9 wickets

Most Runs

1D Conway659
2G Hay633
3G Phillips610
4H Rutherford535
5D Cleaver527
6M Renwick499
7M Bracewell475
8H Cooper471
9S Murdoch443
10J Carter423

Most Wickets

1I Sodhi36
2H Bennett32
3M Bacon31
4W Somerville25
5=M McEwan24
5=R McCone24
7M Henry23
8=D Bracewell22
8=S Kuggeleijn22
8=S Rance22

With Thanks To

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