Monday, February 4, 2013

Wellington v Canterbury, Plunket Shield, fourth day of four, 3 February 2013

376 runs is plenty to score on the final day of any game, even with all ten wickets still standing. That was Wellington’s task at the start of another day so gorgeous that it had a modelling contract and was driving around in a sports car with its footballer boyfriend.

In the home team’s favour was a pitch that might have been prepared by Mary Poppins, perfect in every way as it was, from a batsman’s point of view at least. Wellington’s sole spinner, Luke Woodcock, had been little used on Saturday. Today, almost three-quarters of the overs were bowled by Canterbury’s three spinners. Neither approach was right or wrong. Whatever the style of the bowler, the surface offered no charity and wickets had to be mined for, using guile and accuracy as tools.

Of course, this means that the pitch was far from perfect. A cricket pitch for a first-class match should be in a state of constant evolution from first ball to last, presenting different challenges from day to day, even from session to session. This one had all the variety of Scottish cuisine.

Left-arm fast-medium bowler Ryan McCone made an early breakthrough when Josh Brodie edged an outswinger to keeper David Fulton, who came into the match through the revolving door installed at the Basin by the New Zealand selectors (see yesterday’s post). Fulton is the brother of Canterbury captain Peter Fulton (but no relation of his namesake the former Kent captain), and should he never play first-class cricket again, will become a quiz question as this one day will constitute his entire career.

Wellington skipper and first-innings centurion Stephen Murdoch soon followed, unaccountably leaving a straight one from trundler Brett Findlay that removed his off stump. Decent fellow as I am sure Murdoch is, nobody was sorry to see him go, as his departure brought in Jesse Ryder. This was the point of the day as far as everyone was concerned. If he was there for three hours he would win the game for Wellington, if dismissed cheaply the game was as good as Canterbury’s.

Ryder was soon away, swatting a six over mid wicket off Findlay, then cover driving a four in the same over. He was as harsh on Todd Astle, and it was a surprise that Fulton persisted with the leg spinner. Out of the blue, Astle tossed one right up and Ryder’s drive turned it into a yorker, which removed his leg stump. Some spectators were out of the gate before Ryder had left the field. I braced myself for an adjectival outburst and the thud of bat against dressing shed wall, but none came. Later that day it emerged that Ryder had been signed up by the Delhi Dilettantes (I may not have the name quite right) in the IPL for NZ$300,000 plus, which would bring equitability to the most combustible temperament.

The general feeling was that only the formalities remained and that by mid-afternoon we would be strolling around the harbour enjoying Wellington’s apparent relocation on the Mediterranean. Not for the last time today, the home team displayed fortitude and fought back to a point where the game was close to level pegging. Michael Papps and Grant Elliott added 52 by lunch, 236 short of the target.

McCone, switching to the southern end immediately after the interval, trapped Papps lbw with an inswinger in his first over. McCone’s ability to produce a fine delivery at the start of a spell was to be crucial later in the afternoon. Papps made 65, continuing his good form. Like Fulton, he is being touted as a Test opener, but the same doubts about his class apply.

Luke Woodcock edged an Astle googly to slip and thoughts turned once more to gelato on the waterfront. For the second time, Elliott formed half of a match-levelling partnership, this time with Harry Boam, returning to the game after a day off on Saturday (see “revolving door”, above). After a brief period of consolidation, they too went on the attack—a draw would end what little chance Wellington had in the Plunket Shield as much as a defeat would.

The biggest surprise was not that the sixth-wicket partnership proved so durable, but that a crowd of about 200 was there to enjoy it in the sun. It is not often that the word “crowd” can be reasonably deployed in a report on a Plunket Shield match, and while it was not exactly Woodstock, there was a hint of an atmosphere around the pickets during the afternoon.

Fulton placed strong reliance on Todd Astle, who bowled with only brief respites at the northern end. Astle played a Test during the recent tour of Sri Lanka and is often mentioned for the spinning all-rounder’s role against England in the absence of the injured Vettori. Despite his dismissal of Ryder, Astle was unimpressive. He bowled far too much loose stuff—three successive full tosses followed by a long hop in one over—which he largely got away with here, but that would be punished severely by competent Test batsmen.

However, Astle did break the Elliott/Boam partnership just as it appeared to be pushing Wellington ahead. Elliott top-edged a sweep for 91 with the stand worth exactly 100. Another 125 were needed with four wickets left.

For most of the first two sessions slow left-armer Roneel Hira was ignored by his captain, at one stage having bowled only four overs in contrast to 13 of the non-descript off spin of Tim Johnston. With Boam booming and Kuggeleijn making a confident start with four, four and six from the last three balls of an Astle over, Fulton turned to Hira almost in desperation. He struck almost at once, beating Kuggeleijn through the air and bowling him.

The ever-aggressive Mark Gillespie, who, whatever the situation, bats with the demeanour of a man who has been served a plate of bad oysters in an expensive restaurant[1], put on another 41 with Boam, taking Wellington to within 63 of their target. Hira then produced another clever delivery, one that went on with the arm to have Boam lbw. Boam departed and twenty seconds after disappearing from view treated us to the dressing room explosion that we had expected from Ryder. An oath measured on the Richter Scale and work for the plasterers today, I think.

Ili Tugaga continued the attack, but did so brainlessly, holing out off the impressive Hira for two. Last man Tipene Friday came out to join Gillespie with 57 still required. Unlike Tugaga, Friday focused on defence, at which he looked well-organised, and left the run scoring to Gillespie, who started turning down singles, a strategy that I usually deplore, but which was vindicated here.

A four and a six off Hira was followed by a maiden by Astle to Friday. Twenty came from Hira’s next over, including two sixes high over the head of the man on the mid-wicket boundary. Friday resisted another over from Astle, and with 21 needed Fulton brought back McCone from the southern end. His first delivery settled it. A slow yorker, audacious in conception and perfectly executed. It clipped Gillespie’s leg stump and gave Canterbury victory by 20 runs.

The cricket was not always top class, but as a match it was wonderful. There’s nothing like a well-contested game of first-class cricket and when it is staged at the Basin in the sun it is a glimpse of Paradise. Auckland visit next weekend, by which time we will all be growing olives and oranges in the capital.

[1] My Waikato correspondent points out that I use food images quite often, and she has a point.

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