Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Return of the Kings

Wellington v Northern Districts, 50 overs, Basin Reserve, 4 November 2018

At full strength Northern Districts would be favourites to beat any other domestic team in the world, Surrey included. They have five bowlers in the top 15 of the world rankings in at least one format—Boult, Southee, Wagner, Santner and Sodhi—as well as one of the world’s best batsmen, Kane Williamson, other established internationals De Grandhomme and Watling, and Anderson and Seifert in T20.

“At full strength” is the key thing there. All the above except the injured Santner are on international duty in the UAE at the moment, where the Black Caps are taking on Pakistan in all three formats.

Wellington are without Blundell, van Beek and Rachin Ravindra, all with New Zealand A in the same location. Ravindra’s absence is particularly noteworthy as he is yet to play for Wellington’s senior team in first-class, list A or T20, but has been accelerated into the national A squad because of exceptional promise shown in international age group cricket, another straw in the wind that blows away the significance of the domestic first-class game.

What’s more, Jeetan Patel has opted out of the shorter forms for Wellington this year so as to preserve his aging bones for the next English season, for which nobody blames him in the least. Luke Woodcock has also decided to restrict himself to red-ball cricket, having made more first-class appearances for Wellington than any player has for any New Zealand province.

This is the New Zealand present, and the UK future: the national 50-over competition without the top talent, and with a fair portion of the middling talent unavailable too. This is what it will be like from 2020 when the Hundread (feel free to use that) gets under way.

Today’s match was an illustration of what the game becomes in these circumstances—a contest in who can best disguise their inexperience. Of course, a fine game of cricket can be the outcome, tolerable in the New Zealand spring, but lacking something as the main attraction outside the big grounds in the high English summer.

Andrew Fletcher and Malcolm Nofal opened, ND having won the toss and put Wellington in. Fletcher, who has earned his first professional contract at 25 with a lot of runs in club cricket, has been Wellington’s 50-over star so far, with two centuries in three games. He didn’t start like a man in peak form. One handsome cover drive apart, he was fortunate not to touch at least one of the deliveries that Brett Randell sent down the off-stump corridor.

As so often, a wicket fell after the release of pressure when good but unrewarded opening bowlers were replaced. The deceptively amiably paced Daryl Mitchell came on and had soon accounted for the first three Wellington wickets.

Nofal played casually across to be leg before, Conway feathered a catch behind (from his disappointed reaction the bird was already plucked), and Michael Bracewell top-edged a hook to fine leg.

Mitchell, by the way, is no relation to the Worcestershire player of the same name but is the son of John Mitchell, the former All Blacks coach who seems to be doing a fine job as England’s defensive coach, judging from the difficulty teams from this half of the world have had in crossing the line in the last couple of weeks.

For all Mitchell’s success, there was a right-arm-medium sameness about the Northern Districts attack. Fletcher was given far too many opportunities to play off his pads, which seems to be a strength of his.

Off spinner Joe Walker provided a little variety. He is one of several Northern Districts players whose off field time (there being little else to do in Hamilton of an evening) is the cultivation of big, bushy beards. A field-setting discussion between Walker, Devcich and Brownlie resembled a meeting of the crowned heads of Europe in the years before the First World War.

Devcich and Brownlie model ND's one-day and T20 uniforms

At 81 for three, Fletcher was joined by Jimmy Neesham, perhaps the best player left in New Zealand this weekend. At once, he was on the attack with great reserves of timing and power. The extent of his domination can be measured by the fact that when he reached 50, the fourth-wicket partnership was worth no more than 67.

Fletcher edged a catch behind off the slow left-arm of Anton Devcich for 64, but with ten overs to go Wellington were 203 for four, looking to set a target not far short of 300. At that time I wrote a cautionary note saying “all depends on Neesham”. So when he was out chasing a Devcich down the legside in the 42nd over, estimates of the final total tumbled like those for the post-Brexit pound.

It was a smart piece of keeping by Bocock. Everybody around the boundary thought that Neesham had been stumped, but the clue was that no wide was given. It took the online replay to confirm a sharp catch, the bails whipped off in affirmation. Neesham made 86 from 67 balls with eight fours and four sixes.

That Wellington got as far as 269 was due to some loose bowling and optimistic hitting, particularly from Ollie Newton, whose innings was the cricketing equivalent of the golfer who keeps driving into the trees only to have the ball rebound into the middle of the fairway.

Devcich cleaned up the last three wickets to give him a career-best five for 46.

In the break between innings I called into the Museum, where I was delighted to find that they were having a half-price Wisden sale. I settled on an unusual 1950 edition, bound in hard covers, but dark red with a navy blue spine. I have never seen one like this before. Perhaps it was an individual collector salvaging a dilapidated copy with their own design; one or two of mine could do with some help. It cost NZ$30, which is about £15 at current rates.

That’s No 73 on the shelves in Scorecards Towers, with 1951 the most recent gap. I must get round to writing something in each edition about how I got it and where it’s been so that when they end up on other shelves one day, their story will be known.

Wellington’s opening bowlers Bennett and Newton started well, conceding just five runs from the first four overs. Bennett had Cooper leg before with a full pitch. For the next 15 overs, Northern Districts made decent progress, but it was clear that much rested on the partnership between the Tsar and the King, who, with Mitchell, comprised the bulk of their team’s experience.

At 86 for two in the 21st over it was pretty even, but Devcich’s slog-sweep to long on was the first of six wickets to fall in the next 12 overs, with just 44 added to the total. The last two wickets added a further hundred, with Randell, Gibson and (especially) Bocock striking the ball well and with spirit. But the rate required expanded throughout, so for those of us who stayed, the experience of the last hour was akin to knowing that your car has passed its warrant (= MoT for UK readers) but having to hang around for the paperwork to be completed.

With four for 34, Hamish Bennett was again outstanding. Nofal took three with his slow left-arm, with the word “occasional” now deleted from that description.

With four of ten rounds completed, Wellington were top of the table. The winner of the group stage hosts the final with second and third playing off for the other place.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The New Zealand season begins

Just two weeks after leading Warwickshire to victory over Kent to seal the Division Two title in the County Championship, Jeetan Patel began another domestic season back home at the Basin Reserve. Thus do the seasons merge into one another. To emphasise that cricket is a global game, nine of the Auckland team here were playing in a T20 tournament in Abu Dhabi on Saturday before dropping 25 degrees or so for a Wednesday start here.

The domestic first-class game in New Zealand is further down the road to extinction than the County Championship. This year we are reduced to eight games, replicating the uneven pattern of Division Two of the Championship, with teams playing some opponents twice and some only once. There was a rumour that the programme was going to be slashed back to the five games of amateur days, spread, perhaps, to make us grateful for being left with eight (cricket administrators can turn even the most rational of us into conspiracy theorists).

Compensation was offered by the expansion of the 50-over competition from eight games to ten, but only when the fixture list was published did it become apparent that the six additional games  were all to be played at the “high-performance” centre at Lincoln, deep enough in the Canterbury countryside to be inaccessible to all but the most intrepid spectator, exiled like a king’s mad brother.

As is traditional at this stage of the season, half of the Basin is a building site. The old dressing rooms have been demolished and the replacement building is half-complete, though having a working building site behind the bowler’s arm was not as disruptive as I expected it to be. The wooden pavilion that was the headquarters of Wellington Cricket has also gone, to be replaced, puzzlingly, by a children’s playground. So there will be swings at Basin, if not swing.

The playground will be in the shadow of what is now referred to as the Museum Stand, formerly the Grandstand. Built in the 1920s, the stand was right behind the line until the square was realigned in the late 1970s. It has been closed for the last five or so years because of its vulnerability to a strong earthquake (though the museum underneath remains open, so presumably it is calculated that the stand would fall to the side—where the playground is being built).

It had been thought that the stand would be demolished, but the money has now been found to strengthen it. Unfortunately, this was the cash that was to have paid for floodlights to be installed, so the ODIs and T20s that are the only matches that would fill the seats in the restored stand will remain at the Cake Tin.

Changes too on the field of play for Wellington. The Gladstonian first-class career of Michael Papps is over at last. Steven Murdoch, a stalwart at the top of the order for almost a decade, has also departed, for Canterbury. Jimmy Neesham joins from Otago. As well as being one of the most naturally talented cricketers in New Zealand, Neesham is much wittier and free-thinking than is usual for a professional sportsman, if his Twitter account (@JimmyNeesh) is anything to go by.

Wellington v Auckland, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 10 to 13 October 2018

I’m still working my way through recordings of the final Championship match at the Oval between Surrey and Essex. The crowds at the Oval are a re-creation of Live Aid compared to the faithful few who gathered at the Basin for the start of the New Zealand season.

The way the fixture list has worked out, this game represented my best chance of seeing a whole game of first-class cricket, so naturally it rained for quite a lot of the time.

Auckland won the toss (we still have the toss in New Zealand, quaint old things that we are) and elected to field, no doubt recalling that in last season’s opener at the Basin they found themselves 12 for seven with the season less than an hour old. The pitch resembled the palette of an artist using only shades of green, but, the odd ball apart, did not produce the degree of movement that its appearance presaged.

It was 45 minutes into the morning when the first wicket fell, the pitch blameless as Woodcock was accounted for by a McEwan yorker. Andrew Fletcher was the other opener. He is a local cricketer finally getting his chance. For years, local clubs have complained that runs and wickets for them don’t count for enough where provincial selection is concerned, so Fletcher is being willed to succeed by aspiring provincial cricketers around Wellington in the hope that would encourage the selectors to look more

Fletcher leg glanced a stylish four, but was out attempting a repeat, the ball deflecting from glove to stumps. An unusual played-on also accounted for Devon Conway, who had left balls millimetres from the off stump with impeccable judgement until he slashed at a short one from Lister only to see it uproot his middle stump.

This brought in Jimmy Neesham for his Wellington debut innings. Characteristically, he began with an off-driven boundary, and followed with eight more fours in a 64-ball 51. He put on ninety for the fourth wicket with Wellington captain Michael Bracewell, who hit the same number of boundaries as Neesham as he made 53, but not as memorably. Wellington supporters want Neesham to do well, but not that well, or he’ll be back in the national squad and we won’t see him.

The breaking of the Bracewell/Neesham partnership removed the structure from the Wellington innings; the last six wickets added only 102 between them, Matt McEwan’s four for 48 being the main reason. McEwan has made his way from Canterbury to Auckland via Wellington, much to the benefit of the fast-food industry in each location, judging by his near-spherical profile. What he lacks in conditioning, McEwan makes up for with bustle, bluster and willpower. His pace is well on the brisk side of medium, and his commitment in the field made me relieved that hard hats were required on the building site, as he charged towards it like a cable-knitted Exocet. He appeals like a pantomime villain (the umpires happy to join in with "oh no it isn't").

The performance of the game came from test opener Jeet Raval. Overnight he was 46 not out, reached his fifty during the short period of play possible on the second morning, and completed the hundred when play resumed for a marathon three-and-a-half-hour session after the rain. Raval was a class above any other batsman in the game, with some lovely shots through the off side and that little bit more time than anybody else.

The Raval/Latham opening partnership is the most settled that the test side has had for a while, though it is wrong to say that it provides continuity given the increasingly long test-free periods that we endure these days.

The third day was washed out completely. It is tempting to go down the predictable road of moaning that cricket shouldn’t be played at this time of year, but the four days before and after this game would  both have made for comfortable playing and watching.

Play began earlier than might have been expected on the last day, given the deluge. By God it was cold, four degrees taking account of the wind chill straight from the Antarctic. I did not move from the Long Room and the free members’ coffee. Once the first innings bonus points had been sorted out, the rest of the day was for practice, both at cricket and polar survival.

Over the winter, the Basin Reserve scoreboard has been working on new ways to infuriate. It was refurbished last year and has a new electronic section that can display a much wider range of information. Given the challenge that displaying with an approximation of accuracy just the total and batsmen’s scores has presented for some years past, this is akin to giving guns to a civilisation that has previously had only sticks.

Throughout this game it played a game of peek-a-boo with us, rotating the batsmen’s totals every six seconds with a variety of other information, including the progress of the over (useful in a one-day game, but not when it is one or two balls behind as it usually was here) and landmarks such as “Auckland 200” (this posted right next to the team total that had told us this already, often several overs ago).

Wellington v Otago, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 18–20 October

The sun returned to Wellington the following week, as I knew it would when I couldn’t get to the game before the third afternoon. By that time, the game was all but over, with Wellington needing six more wickets to complete a comfortable innings victory. This they did over the next three hours, making for a tension-free, but pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Wellington had made 509 for five declared thanks largely to the two South Africans, Conway with a double century and Nofal with a single. This may make Nofal nervous, as the last time he made a hundred he was dropped for the next game.

Otago are the Glamorgan of the Plunket Shield, or possibly—given how players that they produce invariably move on when their true talent becomes apparent—the Leicestershire. Of the team here, readers who do not make a study of New Zealand domestic cricket are likely to have heard only of Hamish Rutherford.

They were bowled out for 190 in the first innings, and were four down and still more than 250 short of making Wellington bat again when I got to the Basin.

Hamish Bennett took four in the first innings, and was enjoying his work with the assistance of the northerly now (the northerly is the good wind here, bringing warmth; it is the southerly that breaks bowlers’ and spectators’ hearts). New Zealand has more fast bowling strength now than at any time before. Boult, Southee and Wagner are all in or around the world top ten, and Kent’s Matt Henry stands in reserve, but Bennett in the form of the last two years would let nobody down if called upon. He has real pace and the experience to use it to maximum effect.

The Basin pitch was one of its best. On the third afternoon it still offered pace and bounce to Bennett, but also some assistance to Jeetan Patel. The balance between bat and ball was just as it should be at this stage of the game.

It was a treat to watch a long spell from Patel, just returned from another successful season at Edgbaston, this time as captain. When I hear English commentators talk about spin bowling, they tend to use Patel as their benchmark of excellence. He has never had that level of respect here, even being relegated to twelfth man duties once or twice. He has skippered Wellington only occasionally, when he would seem the obvious candidate in all forms, as he is for Warwickshire. At the time of writing, he has 817 first-class wickets. Could he get to a thousand, probably the last to achieve that?

So there we are, not yet Halloween and half Wellington’s domestic first-class programme done. The next Plunket Shield game at the Basin is four months hence.

The Return of the Kings

Wellington v Northern Districts, 50 overs, Basin Reserve, 4 November 2018 Scorecard At full strength Northern Districts would be...