Thursday, November 7, 2013

Wellington v Otago, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 1st day, 27 October 2013

An achievement in cricket watching: being present at the last day of the English season, and at the first of the New Zealand season a month later. Superficially, the scenes were similar; sun beaming from a blue sky. But for the stillness of the St Lawrence there was a nail-your-granny-down northerly at the Basin. I have never changed seats so often during one day’s play, as I attempted to keep out of the wind and in the sun.

It was good to have the opportunity to watch at this time of year. For several seasons almost all pre-Christmas domestic first-class play in New Zealand has been scheduled within the working week, but a change of plan has given those of us who toil at the coalface of the economy the opportunity to watch some cricket. For once, the term “crowd” could be deployed with only a suggestion of irony or hyperbole, there being a couple of hundred present to enjoy the afternoon. The second day is a public holiday (the start of the season should always be celebrated thus).

Jesse Ryder returned to cricket today, something it was feared he might not do in the dark hours that followed the assault he suffered in Christchurch at the end of last season. It is the walls of the visitors dressing room off which he will bounce his bat if things do not go well; he has moved south in search of the peace of mind that will enable him to reclaim his rightful place in the national team.

Brent Arnel has come to the capital from Northern Districts. He joins Mark Gillespie (with whom he was joint leading wicket taker in the Plunket Shield last season) and Andy McKay in what is, on paper at least, as threatening a fast-medium attack as there is in the competition. I trust that Arnel had worked out that as the established leader of the attack it is Gillespie who has the choice of ends, leaving him and McKay to labour into the wind. Within the first half-hour Arnel had been hit for the first six of the season, a top-edged hook by Neil Broom that cleared the JR Reid Gates. You may infer that Otago won the toss and elected to bat, finishing the day on 358 for three.

The score gives a misleading impression of the course of the day. With sharper fielding—a couple of chances went down during the morning—and more luck with the considerable number of edges that fell just short or wide of fielders, Wellington might have had five or six out by lunch. There was more pace in the pitch than is often the case at the Basin, and for the first half of the day at least, it was not the paradise for batsmen and penitentiary for bowlers that the final score suggests.

Arnel finished the day wicketless, but was the pick of the attack. It was McKay—now with the wind—who took the first wicket, trapping Broom, who was well forward, lbw for 32. That was the last success for Wellington until well into the final session as Michael Bracewell joined Aaron Redmond for a partnership of 217, Redmond scoring a career-best 154, Bracewell 107.

Redmond was leading scorer in the Plunkett Shield last season, so with neither Hamish Rutherford nor Peter Fulton consistent as openers, it might be thought that an opening day 150 would have Redmond touted for an opening slot against the West Indies, who are here for three Tests before Christmas. Curiously, his innings here did nothing to advance his claims. There were many fine shots, particularly through the offside, and three sixes. But it was chancy and edgy. As well as getting all the luck that was going before lunch, he was dropped by keeper Ronchi shortly thereafter. The catch would have been comfortable for the only slip had he been positioned at first rather than fadishly at second.  He was also struck be a bad case of the nervous nineties, becoming almost shotless for half an hour before passing the mark. This raises temperament questions.  Redmond was finally dismissed caught behind down the legside off McKay late in the day, his departure from the crease sufficiently delayed to record disagreement with the decision. His final half century was the least spectacular, but most solid of the three.

At 34, Redmond may have had his international day, but the quality of his partner’s innings suggested that the national team could feature a brace of Bracewells sooner rather than later. Michael Bracewell reached his century just after the double-century partnership came up, and included 16 fours. His only six followed, a sweep off Patel over deep (in fact, not so deep, with the pitch being well over to the Museum side) square leg that almost took out an oblivious pedestrian twice, once on its way over the walkway that separates the seats from the field and once as it rebounded off the concrete. I am in favour of this; it will make people pay attention as they saunter through.

Bracewell was out in the same over, overbalancing and bowled around his legs trying to repeat the shot. Patel was too wily.

Which brings us to the Jeetan Patel question: what was he doing here? Or, by way of elucidation, why was he not with the Test team in Bangladesh? Spin resources are thin, with Vettori injured, Bruce Martin not looking quite the part and Ish Sodhi still young. Patel has not featured since the tour of South Africa in the New Year. Yet in the interim he had his second consecutive full county season with Warwickshire, taking 59 wickets to finish as the leading spinner in the top division of the County Championship, a higher level of domestic cricket than the dear old Shield. He bowled well here, finishing with 4 for 124 at a smidgen over three an over without encouragement from the pitch, and would be in my team against the West Indies in December.

Even though there had been two centuries, the event of the day for most spectators was the entry of Ryder in the last hour. After minimal reconnaissance he went on the attack, stroking successive fours through the covers off Woodcock, one off the back foot, one off the front. He gave a chance on 12, top edging a pull high enough for him to take several steps towards the rooms before Woodcock spilled it at square leg. It looked a bad miss, but there is no such thing for a steepler when the wind is up at the Basin. Ryder finished on 48 not out.

Postscript: day two

The northerly at the Basin is conciliatory. An accommodation can be reached to allow you and it to occupy the same space. Not so the southerly, the Arthur Scargill of winds. It was picketing in force on day two, so I only stayed until lunchtime, before retreating to My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers in balmy Khandallah, where the wind won’t risk the wrath of the Residents’ Association. My Blean correspondent will tell you how indomitable I once was in the face of the elements at early season cricket; but no more.

But I saw Jesse Ryder reach his century, which is what I had hoped for. He was not at his best; his timing was erratic as well it might be after the break he has had. Ryder at 80 percent is still better than almost anything else around. Andy McKay thought it a wheeze to bounce him with two back on the onside boundary. The second four of the over passed the finer man only four metres from his post and he stood not a shred of a chance of getting to it.

He fell for 117 and left the field to a warm reception, gracefully acknowledged.  I would have Jesse Ryder back in international cricket as soon as he wants to be.

The pitch’s early life was misleading advertising. It flattened out and the match subsided into dull drawdom. Let us hope for more spice later in the season.                                                                    

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