Countdown to first ball

There will be no more fitting place for reigning Plunket Shield champions the Wellington Firebirds to begin their defence of New Zealand’s first-class championship on Monday than the Basin Reserve.

The home ground of New Zealand, Wellington and Otago legend John Reid who passed away this week, it was where Reid smashed his highest first-class score of 296 for Wellington in 1963 — including a world record 15 sixes in an innings, a record that stood until 1995. To this day, Reid’s innings remains in the top three first-class scores for the capital.

Wellington’s opponent on that occasion was a luckless Northern Districts, but on Monday morning it will be Canterbury donning the whites for the first crack at the Firebirds as a star-studded New Zealand cricket season gets underway at 10.30am.

A host of BLACKCAPS will spice up the first half of edition 2020/21 with the opening round also featuring a tantalising clash between star-studded Northern Districts and the Central Stags at Seddon Park. The remaining first-round fixture between the Auckland Aces and Otago Volts begins 24 hours later at Auckland’s Eden Park Outer Oval.

With the Firebirds, Canterbury, Stags and ND to reveal their round one squads by noon on Sunday, the stage is set for some salivating individual match-ups. The prospect of Tim Southee against Ross Taylor. The ilk of Tom Latham for Canterbury against Firebirds peers Tom Blundell and Devon Conway.

It’s the public’s first opportunity to see Domestic run-machine Conway in action since he was signed by NZC on a BLACKCAPS contract, with free admission to all the Plunket Shield four-dayers a treat for cricket-hungry fans.

Conway scored 701 first-class runs last summer at an impressive 87.62 — including a landmark unbeaten 327* that relegated Reid’s famous knock to third on the all-time Wellington list.

Last season’s big improvers were the Otago Volts. The southern men begin away to the consistent Aces — whose BLACKCAPS include Martin Guptill and Kyle Jamieson, and who will enter the season under a new first-class captain and vice-captain, Robbie O’Donnell and Ben Horne.

“Captaining Auckland is something I have always wanted to do since playing cricket as a kid on the North Shore,” said O’Donnell, 26, who has plenty of experienced heads in his squad to support him.

“Now that the captaincy is a reality, the goal is to lift the Plunket Shield, not just once, but multiple times over the length of my career.”

The Volts haven’t lifted the Shield in 32 years, but have an ace up their sleeve in Hamish Rutherford who will be looking to convert his white-ball form to red-ball.

One of just two New Zealand professional cricketers (alongside retired Firebird Jeetan Patel) to play in the UK 2020 season, Rutherford was in scorching touch for the Worcestershire Rapids as he blasted 352 runs from nine Vitality Blast games at 39.11 — including a T20 century. He will captain Otago's first-class side this summer while Jacob Duffy continues as white-ball skipper.

All the marquee players will be welcome assets for their Major Association teams, bar a handful of BLACKCAPS still on IPL duties in the United Arab Emirates.

ND’s Tim Seifert is also unavailable for selection for the first four rounds of the Plunket Shield due to having been picked up as a standby player in the IPL.

Stags captain Greg Hay said his side was looking forward to the challenge of facing Northern Districts on their home turf in Hamilton, and meeting two impressive line-ups in ND and the Aces twice in the first four rounds.

“I’m expecting the standard to be pretty high throughout the Plunket Shield and there are some strong sides out there,” said Hay, “but in saying that, we should have a fairly strong and experienced line-up ourselves.”

With a maximum 20 points available per match — and both sides able to accrue up to 12 first-innings bonus points per match irrespective of the result, the traditional lore of the Plunket Shield is that a strong start in the pre-Christmas rounds is key to title hopes, all teams looking to avoid having to play catch-up on the points table when they jostle through the tense, final four rounds of March and April.

“Since the championship was reduced from 10 to eight rounds a couple of seasons ago, every game has become more important, and teams are really looking to force results in just about every round,” noted Hay, “so they’re going to be exciting games.”

Canterbury captain Cole McConchie echoes those sentiments as he prepares to lead his side into the defending champion’s lair, with the support of his new coach Peter Fulton.

“Plunket Shield is still the absolute pinnacle for me,” says McConchie. “To have a successful campaign, it’s not just one good session of cricket, or one good day of cricket: it’s putting together 32 good days of cricket, and it takes a full squad to lift that Plunket Shield.”

First contested in 1906/07, this summer’s Plunket Shield championship will form the prelude to the BLACKCAPS series against the West Indies which begins on 27 November.


Wellington Firebirds
Michael Bracewell, Finn Allen, Hamish Bennett, Jakob Bhula, Fraser Colson, Andrew Fletcher, Jamie Gibson, Lauchie Johns, Troy Johnson, Iain McPeake, Ollie Newton, Rachin Ravindra, Ben Sears, Michael Snedden, Logan van Beek, Peter Younghusband. BLACKCAPS contracted players available for Plunket Shield: Tom Blundell, Devon Conway

Cole McConchie, Todd Astle, Chad Bowes, Jack Boyle, Leo Carter, Sean Davey, Cam Fletcher, Andrew Hazeldine, Tyler Lortan, Ken McClure, Daryl Mitchell, Ed Nuttall, Fraser Sheat, Henry Shipley, Theo van Woerkom, Will Williams. BLACKCAPS contracted players available for Plunket Shield: Matt Henry, Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls.

Northern Districts
Joe Carter, Jimmy Baker, Peter Bocock, Dean Brownlie, Katene Clarke, Henry Cooper, Anton Devcich, Matthew Fisher, Zak Gibson, Brett Hampton, Scott Kuggeleijn, Brett Randell, Jeet Raval, Anurag Verma, Joe Walker. BLACKCAPS contracted players available for Plunket Shield: Colin de Grandhomme, Ish Sodhi, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner, BJ Watling

Central Stags
Greg Hay, George Worker, Ben Smith, Dane Cleaver, Tom Bruce, Doug Bracewell, Brad Schmulian, Adam Milne, Ben Wheeler, Blair Tickner, Seth Rance, Ray Toole, Josh Clarkson, Christian Leopard, Jayden Lennox, Bayley Wiggins. BLACKCAPS contracted players available for Plunket Shield: Ross Taylor, Ajaz Patel, Will Young.

Auckland Aces
Will O’Donnell, Graeme Beghin, Jamie Brown, Mark Chapman, Louis Delport, Danru Ferns, Ben Horne, Ben Lister, Matt McEwan, Colin Munro, Robbie O’Donnell, Glenn Phillips, Ollie Pringle, Sean Solia, Will Somerville, Ross ter Braak. BLACKCAPS contracted players available for Plunket Shield: Martin Guptill, Kyle Jamieson.

Otago Volts
Jacob Duffy, Hamish Rutherford, Matt Bacon, Neil Broom, Max Chu, Josh Finnie, Cam Hawkins, Anaru Kitchen, Nick Kelly, Jarrod McKay, Dale Phillips, Mitch Renwick, Michael Rippon, Michael Rae, Nathan Smith. [Contracted Volt Dean Foxcroft remains in South Africa]

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