To the Basin for the first time this season for an intriguing T20 match. With the league stage of the competition reaching its conclusion, Wellington, second in the table, hosted leaders Otago. On Sunday third-placed Northern Districts visit the Basin, so by the end of the weekend the line-up for the knock-out phase will be sorted out (the top-placed team hosts the final against the winners of playoff between the second and third-placed sides). No matter what the sporting code, Wellington teams have a long tradition of blowing it when this close to success, so the local mood going into this game was guarded at best.
Rumours that Chris Gayle had been signed for the two games this weekend proved unfounded, a pity as the prospect of Gayle peppering the rush-hour traffic around the Basin with sixes was alluring. Gales of a more familiar Wellingtonian kind were more happily absent on a beautiful late afternoon, though most of the pohutukawas had lost their scarlet bloom.
Otago won the toss and elected to bat. Hamish Rutherford and Neil Broom opened the batting, Ili Tugaga the bowling. Tugaga is the only No 10 batsman I have seen make a century in first-class cricket (http://cricketarchive.com/Archive/Scorecards/259/259070.html), and is a male model in his spare time (or possibly, is a cricketer in his spare time from being a male model). He took the first wicket when Broom hooked straight to long leg.
This brought in Derek de Boorder (Kiwi born-and-bred despite the South African-sounding name), who batted through until the penultimate ball of the innings for 67 without looking completely at ease until the last couple of overs, particularly when the blade of his bat separated from the handle during a straight drive. It hurtled towards the bowler, Jesse Ryder, who of all the Wellington team has a life experience that means he the least likely to be perturbed by a large piece of wood coming at him.
Rutherford’s 32 constituted precisely half of Otago’s total when he was brilliantly caught by Ryder at cover point. Ryder’s wonderful hand-eye co-ordination is worth any number of gym sessions; an athlete despite his girth.
Scott Kuggeleijn dropped de Boorder from a sharp diving chance at mid-wicket but atoned with a direct hit that ran out Nathan McCullum later the same over. This brought Ryan ten Doeschate of Essex and the Netherlands to the middle. He has the reputation of being one of the finest exponents of T20 in the world, a hitter, so I was keen to see him get going. But he had scored only nine when he fell to a fine catch by Tugaga, strutting the boundary catwalk.
A surfeit of boundaries through the middle of the innings meant that after 17 overs Otago had an unimpressive 132 for four. It was a dating website of an innings: singles only, though effective hitting at the death raised to 170, a par score but no more at the Basin.
As the Wellington innings began a spasm of anticipation ran round the crowd, for Jesse Ryder was at the wicket. Ryder is New Zealand’s only clear-the-bar batsman, someone who can generate excitement just by stepping onto the field. The appearance of the Black Caps Test batsmen sends supporters to the bar, drinking to forget. Ryder despatched the first ball of the third over to the long-off boundary with the insouciance of a restaurant critic sending an overcooked turbot back to the kitchen. But he hit across the line of the next delivery and was bowled, to the sound of three thousand people emitting a wistful sigh.
At the other end was Bangladeshi batsman Tamim Iqbal. The appearance of the name of the scoreboard made me think what a fine T20 player Kent’s Asif Iqbal would have been, full of movement and unorthodox shots, and a greyhound between the wickets. Tamim Iqbal has been quite successful in his spell for Wellington, but did not find the pace of the pitch today; much of his 41 was accrued from mistimed shots and he found scoring more difficult the longer his innings went on. Yet he was Jack Hobbs reincarnated compared with Australian import Cameron Borgas.
Borgas scored 50 in his last appearance for Wellington in November, but has scored only 26 in five innings for the Sydney Thunder since, and today had less touch than the Venus de Milo. His 35 came in 39 balls, a glacial pace of scoring in this form of the game. Had his innings been a dog it would have been mercifully euthanised at an early stage.
Luke Ronchi (another Aussie, but qualified for New Zealand) took just eight deliveries to overtake Borgas, who had been in for almost three-quarters of an hour, but was out for a nine-ball 20, by which point Wellington’s hopes faded away like an ageing starlet.
Some hitting in the last two overs reduced the final margin of Otago’s victory to 12 runs, which did not reflect the ease of the win. The local supporters retreated into the Wellington evening disappointed, but not in the least surprised.
Update: Wellington made a spirited attempt to lose Sunday’s game against Northern Districts by conceding 72 runs in the last six overs of the run chase, but won nevertheless and host Friday’s semi-final, probably against the same opponents.