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.
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.