Michael Bracewell's debut season as Firebirds captain is going all right. MButcher/NZC

Firebirds flying high

Michael Bracewell probably hasn't stopped to think about it, but in just over a fortnight's time he may well get the chance to lean back in the Visitors' changing room under the West Stand at Eden Park and look back on a very good career move.

It's not that the solid batsman known ubiquitously on the cricket circuit as "Beast" — on account of his hulking frame — has had a rich season on the runs front. He's averaging just 22.50, his top score this season an unbeaten 58 and that's been his only half century of the summer to date. It's not the kind of stuff a number four batsman likes to hear repeated — but in better years for the Otago Volts, he was putting up the kind of numbers that could have seen him crack 1000 runs in a season.

After 55 matches and seven years with the Volts, and with a handful of NZ A appearances fading into memory, at the start of this summer Bracewell (still just 26 at the time) sought a change of scene to  refresh his cricket.

Remarkably the Wellington Firebirds offered him not only a contract, but the opportunity to captain his new side on debut — invigoration not only for Bracewell, but for the Firebirds unit itself.

So now, leading a team that includes some of the most experienced practitioners of the first-class game in this country — Jeetan Patel, who will captain Warwickshire this winter, can draw on a personal bank of 256 matches; Michael Papps has 12,000 runs from 186 matches — Bracewell finds himself with a chance to lift the Shield for the first time in his own career: a prize worth $75,000 to the winning team and regarded by players as the hardest format to win. The Wellington Firebirds haven't laid hands on the Plunket Shield since 2003/04. Now, after 14 long years, they're in the box seat.

"Yeah, it's a nice position to be in, but there's still a lot of cricket to be played over the next few games", he says cautiously, abiding by the game's unwritten rule that anything can happen until you've locked it away.

"We've played some positive cricket throughout the competition, and we'll just keep going. We're just trying to keep looking to win games of cricket, and who knows? It's a close race."

The Central Stags took a 1-0 ledger over the Firebirds but remain in second spot. PHOTOSPORT

An incredibly close race between the Firebirds and Stags, who have dominated the competition. There are technically three horses left in that race, but the good money is on either those Firebirds — who have a 12-point lead, with a maximum 40 points available from the last two rounds — or those Stags who are the only side to have beaten Bracewell's team this summer and who remain undefeated after eight of the 10 rounds.

The two teams are coming off a bruising, top-of-the-table clash at the Basin Reserve that was like a trunk wrestle between two elephants in musth: the Battle of the Basin.

"There were definitely some ebbs and flows in the game, and for us to have put ourselves back in a position to eventually try for the win was a good effort," Bracewell says.

"We'd been a little bit behind the eight ball at the start of the final day and the way our batters came out and showed our top order in that second innings how to play was pretty impressive. We just managed to get partnerships at the right times to keep ourselves in it, and then to eventually get ahead of it, which was exciting."

But after all that sweat and toil on a mainly flat deck over the four riveting days, at the end of it the Firebirds extended their leaderboard advantage over the Stags by just one point. The Stags, meanwhile, after losing control of the final day, had hung on and stopped the Firebirds from taking the 12 points that would have taken them to a big 24-point lead with two rounds to play.

"Obviously to not get those last two wickets that we needed for victory was frustrating in the end," says Bracewell, "but to put ourselves in that position [to declare and hunt wickets] was a great effort in the first place. The Stags have some explosive batters and we really didn't want to give them a sniff."

The Stags will meanwhile have taken a lot of heart themselves from the encounter, which they went into with neither the season's top runscorer — Greg Hay — nor the top wicket-taker — spinner Ajaz Patel, who were absent due to NZXI warm-up games against England, along with Seth Rance and Doug Bracewell, and the Firebirds' Tom Blundell and Logan van Beek. Stags opener George Worker was meanwhile injured, as was fellow occasional BLACKCAP Ben Wheeler. They could well have a conundrum as to who to leave out in  Napier.

Patel (35 wickets at 22.85) remains the top wicket-taker regardless, ahead of Ace Matt McEwan and van Beek and with Hamish Bennett and Iain McPeake quickly gaining ground; but Papps took his opportunity to march back past Hay to the top of the batting stakes in Round Eight and now has 734 runs at 61.16 from eight games for the season to fellow veteran Hay's 686 at 49.35 from seven.

Papps' prodigious opening partner Luke Woodcock, however, must now be in doubt for the Firebirds' next crunch match at the Basin, against Northern Districts beginning on Sunday. Woodcock was subbed out of the match after feeling groggy following a blow to the front of the helmet, having tried a pull shot against quick bowler Adam Milne.

Woodcock, who had tonned up in the first innings, has been a consistent performer this season with his 592 runs at 49.00 placing him fourth on the runs leaderboard at present, behind Jesse Ryder.

"Luke is a day-to-day proposition for us at the moment," Bracewell reports. "He was pretty gutted not to be able to play a part on the final day in Wellington, but we're monitoring him ahead of our next home match here and will just have to wait and see how he gets on."

At Napier's McLean Park, the Central Stags meanwhile will host bottom-of-the-table Canterbury, who have already had to resign themselves to giving up their title this summer. The Auckland Aces, still in with a slim chance, head to Dunedin to play the Otago Volts on the same day at University of Otago Oval.

All matches are FREE entry and begin at 10.30am so with the business end heating it all up, why not pack yourself a brunch, pick a grassy bank and check out first-class cricket at its finest this weekend?

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