New Zealand's 2018/19 first-class cricket season draws to a close today with two arch rivals set to take it deep.
Northern Districts has fought its way back with the bat at Seddon Park against season champions the Central Stags. after Dean Brownlie's 14th first-class century (his fifth for ND) formed the highlight of a third-day effort that saw the hosts reach their highest total of the season.
Taking advantage of an attack missing injured seamer Seth Rance (strained quadriceps), Daniel Flynn (53), Henry Cooper (78), Joe Carter (71) and Mitchell Santner (54) all added half centuries in the innings as well, building a second-innings lead of 376 by the close of play and with four wickets still in hand.
Already Northern's highest tally this season, at 463 for six the hosts have put their first-innings deficit well behind them, and manoeuvred captain Daniel Flynn into a position to dictate the terms of a last day run chase.
Despite having already wrapped up the Plunket Shield championship, the Stags will meanwhile have no interest in allowing their rivals to get one over them today — after six years in green, it's Head Coach Heinrich Malan's final day of cricket with the team.
Malan, in his tenure, has overseen the team to repeat (one-day) Ford Trophies, a Burger King Super Smash (T20) this year and now back-to-back Plunket Shield (four-day) national titles, the latter being only the second time in Central's 69-year history that it has successfully defended the historic trophy, and the first in which it has claimed both the first-class and T20 trophies in the same season.
Roll in the team respect for Greg Hay—in his first season as skipper, and they will want to finish on a suitable note. The doughty opening batsman himself needs just a further 40 runs to overtake Wellington Firebird Devon Conway as this season's top run-scorer, after having finished runner-up to another Firebird in Michael Papps last season.
At 34, Hay's last two seasons have been the most influential and satisfying of his career. Of his 13 first-class centuries, three were produced last summer, amid 786 runs, his highest season aggregate and most consistent form. This season he has added a further two centuries: a career-best 226 in Alexandra and 158 in Napier, both against the Otago Volts.
A cricketer cut from traditional cloth, he chalked up his 5000th Plunket Shield run for the Stags in the current round and reached 5000 first-class runs in the previous round, having played a handful for games for New Zealand A in the past). Given the chance, he will head into his last innings of the season today with 620 runs from 12 knocks at an average of 51.66.
The Stags have lost only one first-class match in the last few seasons (to Canterbury, this summer) and a loss to ND in their final round would sting, even with the trophy in their dressing room. ND veteran Flynn, Hay's contemporary at 33, will have other designs in his 97th match for the hosts. Play begins at 10.30am and is live-scored at www.nzc.nz
In Dunedin, the Auckland Aces likewise have fought their way back against the Otago Volts — despite having been forced to follow on — with both teams looking to finish a summer of disappointment on their own terms.
While the Volts can look back with pride on hosting The Ford Trophy Grand Final and giving winners the Wellington Firebirds an excellent run for their money on the day, four-day cricket has been a tough grind for the southerners until the last two rounds. They got their first win of the eight-round season last week, and now they've forced a team to follow on for the first time in so long.
But the Aces have already negated that advantage after a solid day three yesterday. Graeme Beghin, who made his first-class debut for the Aces at the beginning of this season, scored his maiden first-class century in his final innings of the summer.
Beghin will resume unbeaten on 110 not out after he and Sean Solia (81) overhauled almost the entire first innings deficit by themselves, in an opening stand of 193 that was broken just before stumps by Matt Bacon.
Earlier in the day, the Volts ended the Aces' first innings at 247 before enforcing the follow-on, but thanks to their opening duo the Aces now trail by just 38 runs with nine wickets in hand heading into the last day of the season.
For the Aces, it's the end of a bumpy summer in which Auckland teams for once didn't bring home trophies in either the men's or women's formats, but the Association dominated nationally at age-group development level.
Originally due to be playing at the Basin Reserve before the tragic events of Christchurch on Friday, Canterbury and the Wellington Firebirds have already closed their scorebooks for the season.
Pace attack leader Hamish Bennett finished the season on top as the leading first-class wicket-taker with 32 wickets at an impressive 17.87, but in the final round ND's star legspinner Ish Sodhi has drawn level with him.
Otago Volt Matt Bacon has surged ahead in the last two games to sit at 29. Auckland Ace Will Somerville has 25, fellow Ace Matt McEwan and Stag Ryan McCone 24 all heading into one more day.
The Firebirds now bid farewell to their own successful Head Coach in Bruce Edgar and, while this season's champion Ford Trophy side was coached by his successor Glenn Pocknall, Edgar was in charge of their exceptional Burger King Super Smash comeback trail that netted the trophy three seasons ago.
Although ultimately unsuccessful, his side notably ran the Central Stags hard for the Plunket Shield last summer. While the Firebirds didn't emulate that red-ball dominance this season, there were sterling performances that kept them in the race until the points table finally spread in the last few rounds.
The Firebirds have also bid farewell to another veteran batsman and spinner Luke Woodcock, but he will hang up his cap comfortable in the knowledge that the next generation is well and truly set to take his beloved Wellington side into the future.
Points awarded to the Firebirds and Canterbury teams for the final round will be the average of all points scored by other teams in Round Eight, a precedent set when the Firebirds-Stags match at the Basin Reserve was abandoned following the Kaikoura earthquake and written into the playing conditions.