ELIMINATION FINAL 11am THIS WEDNESDAY AT EDEN PARK OUTER OVAL
Admission: Gold coin charity donation at the gate
Wellington Firebirds squad
Hamish Bennett (c), Jakob Bhula, Michael Bracewell, Devon Conway, Andrew Fletcher, Lauchie Johns (w), Iain McPeake, Jimmy Neesham, Ollie Newton, Malcolm Nofal, Michael Pollard, Ben Sears, Peter Younghusband
The Wellington Firebirds last lifted The Ford Trophy five summers ago — under a different captain, coach and with a very different side. Few comparisons can be drawn to this season’s consistent unit that stands out as a team in which everyone knows, and performs, their specialist roles on a regular basis.
Just one ball in Lincoln probably cost the Firebirds’ direct entry to The Ford Trophy Grand Final, with a washout in their following game meaning the big dance headed to the Volts' home base in Dunedin. Now the Firebirds face a big challenge against the Auckland Aces to get there, with the Aucks having regained the services of dynamo Mark Chapman from New Zealand A — who, like Colin Munro, can be extremely punishing on Eden Park Outer Oval’s short boundaries.
Out to counter them will be Andrew Fletcher, one of the biggest talking points the Firebirds’ season. The opening batsman scored a century on debut, broke the team's all-time record for most runs in a List A season and equalled the Firebirds record for most centuries in a List A season (three, shared with Michael Papps).
Now, with potentially two games left — if the Firebirds can eliminate defending champions the Auckland Aces tomorrow, he has the national Ford Trophy run aggregrate record in his sights.
Central Stags opening batsman George Worker (above) scored 659 runs in a prolific 2016/17 summer while 25-year-old Fletcher heads into tomorrow’s match with 612 runs. Michael Papps formerly held the Firebirds' List A season record with 609 which Fletcher broke while playing against the Stags in Lincoln.
But Fletcher says he’s not really motivated by statistics. “I don’t really like to think about it, it’s more about winning to me. I don’t really like putting figures to my season…. The most important thing to me is if, come Saturday and we are involved in The Ford Trophy Grand Final, that at the end of it we are having a beer and celebrating a successful campaign. But yes, it would be a nice little cherry on the top if I could do that!"
Having come from the Wellington A and club scene for Onslow, is he feeling the pressure now that he is earmarked as The Ford Trophy’s leading run-scorer — in his sensational rookie season?
"Not at all. It gives me a lot of confidence with four blokes around me in our Firebirds top five who can all really do a job — and they have been. With that much quality around me, I don’t feel too much pressure myself. The way that I look at it, I'm probably one of the easier wickets in the top five!”
What advice has Fletcher been given as he heads into the pressure cooker of national, sudden-death Finals for the first time in his career?
“Treat it like just another game and hopefully it will work out like it has been so far. I think it’s important we just remain the team we are and the team keeps playing the same game we have all campaign. It’s important not to put too much pressure on yourself and on the team in these Finals situation. “I’m a Wellington boy through and through and just proud as anything to represent the Wellington Firebirds in this campaign and at this level."
Asked to pick out a few factors behind the Wellington Firebirds’ consistent campaign this season, Fletcher doesn’t hesitate to single out his captain — the leading wicket-taker of the year so far.
"Hamish Bennett [above, PHOTOSPORT] is a hell of a leader, and a hell of a bowler. We’ve also got a good top five. We play a very consistent, team-focused game where we go into every game each trying to contribute in every way we can, and if we don’t perform individually in our own role, we try to find ways to help out the others. We’ve had every player do something to win a match for us which has made things really easy."
Incredibly, the Firebirds’ previous match at Eden Park Outer Oval — where entry is just a gold coin donation to charity for what should be a fantastic Elimination Final — was Fletcher’s first time playing at Eden Park. That occasion was a tight loss for the Birds, and tomorrow will be only the second time he has played at the unique ground — but he’s excited, not daunted.
"It's a hell of an experience. I had never played at a game where there was an announcer or music in between overs and all that stuff! I'm looking forward to playing there tomorrow. It's a nice batting track.
“I saw a couple of sixes go into the Mobil Station last time and thought to myself, ‘I wish I could do that! Hopefully I can get a couple of gifts tomorrow and have the strength to put it over there."
A tall, rangy player, Fletcher can look more like a slightly awkward rock guitarist than Kane Williamson when he bats. Would he agree he has simply found a way?
"Yeah, I would agree with that. Batting is a pretty tough thing to do and you just have to find the best way that works for you.… at times my shot selection isn’t the prettiest, but it’s where I feel comfortable, and it’s been working so far and so long as I am confident with who I am as a player, hopefully it will continue to work.
"As this campaign has gone on, I’ve become a lot more confident and a lot more comfortable. Cricket is a game of millimetres, and it can be a game of luck. Nerves, luck, is a big thing but if an edge goes to the boundary, I’m happy to take those runs. I was fortunate on debut against Matt Henry and Canterbury, but as the season has gone on, those edges have been minimised and I have been scoring where I want to be scoring.”
FIREBIRDS STORY SO FAR
Beat Canterbury by 7 wickets in Wellington
Lost to the Aces by 13 runs in Auckland
Beat Otago Volts by a record 193 runs in Wellington
Beat ND by 39 runs in Wellington
Beat the Aces by 120 runs at the Basin
Lost to the Otago Volts by 7 runs in Dunedin
Beat the Stags by 58 runs in Lincoln
Beat Canterbury by 23 runs in Christchurch
Lost to the Stags by 7 runs DLS
No result v ND in Whangarei (rain)
Andrew Fletcher: 10 games, a record 612 runs at SR 76.88 but the average? 68.00! 3x100 3x50. Has been the leading run-maker all season, which is not bad in your first summer.
Jimmy Neesham: 10 games, 377 runs at SR 110.23, 1x100 3x50
Devon Conway: 10 games, 357 runs at SR 82.44, 4x50
Michael Bracewell 10 games, 278 runs at SR 85.01, 1x100 1x50
Malcolm Nofal: 10 games, 188 runs at SR 83.92, 2x50
Wild card: Ollie Newton can swing a bat if required down the order, most of his runs this season have come in boundaries.
Captain Hamish Bennett, 10 games, 23 wickets at 13.82 and hard to score off = leading from the front with the new ball. Top strikeman not just for the Firebirds, but the whole competition. Massive influence.
Ollie Newton, 8 games, 13 wickets including a haul of 5/46. Bennett has been so greedy that this is the next best tally from anyone from the capital.
Malcolm Nofal, 10 games, 12 wickets at 19.50 and making the most of enhanced opportunities to contribute with his off-spin
Jimmy Neesham, 10 games, 12 wickets, revitalised, has been a touch expensive at times but gets big wickets; unleash the Neesh and you never know what might happen!
With seven grabs, teenage rookie Jakob Bhula is averaging one catch per innings: if the ball’s flying chances are it’s coming his way.
Keeper Lauchie Johns meanwhile took a whole seven grabs in just one game, it was a new NZ List A record (just one shy of the world mark) and helped him on his way to his 18 dismissals for the season.Error loading Partial View script (file: ~/Views/MacroPartials/pointstable.cshtml)