Friday, December 27, 2013

Wellington v Canterbury, Plunket Shield, Karori Park, 20 – 23 December 2013

There were three games of cricket played on Karori Park last Saturday morning. Two, both between teams of eleven year olds, were attended by enthusiastic crowds of twenty or so. Half-an-hour into play your correspondent constituted a third of the crowd at the other match, a game of first-class cricket between the historic provinces of Wellington and Canterbury, a fixture contested regularly for 140 years or so, now ignored in the corner of a public park.

For unknown reasons the Basin Reserve was unavailable, so to Wellington’s western suburbs we came. In the afternoon a match was played on the adjoining block between two men’s teams, the boundaries within five metres or so of overlapping. This was not the only new experience to add to my lifetime of cricket watching; the bails were dispensed with for the first half of the second day, which did nothing to disperse the aura of rusticity that enveloped the game. It was certainly blustery, but no more so than on any number of days during the average summer in Wellington. Let us hope that the Wellington Cricket Association found two sets of lignite bails in its Christmas stocking.

For all this, I enjoyed my two days at Karori Park hugely and came to the view that it is a better venue for Plunket Shield cricket than the Basin. It is attractive, with hills on two sides of the park, big ones to the west. I was put in mind of the Pen-y-Pound ground in Abergavenny, which is overlooked by Sugar Loaf Mountain (which is merely a big hill—the Welsh are a small race, unduly impressed by elevation).  There is a good café with top-class coffee on the boundary’s edge and, on Sunday at least, the cricket was the centre of attention, not a brief diversion for pedestrians and cyclists passing through.

And there is excellent trudging, the best I have encountered at a cricket ground. It is to trudging around cricket grounds that my Blean correspondent and myself attribute our fine athletic figures. There is a 1 km path around the edge of the park and another track leading off it that takes you up onto the hill to the north of the ground with the oval still in view.

Canterbury’s Tom Latham had batted through the first day to be 137 not out when I turned up for the start of the second day. He was still there on 241 when Canterbury declared at 471 for eight. This was the second-highest individual score I have ever seen, and a deal more entertaining than the agonisingly dull 275 that Daryll Cullinan subjected us to on Eden Park’s glued pitch in 1999.  

Latham’s innings was most impressive, particularly for one who came to attention as a short-form dasher. He was disciplined and displayed excellent shot selection. He gave just one chance on the second day, pulling hard to square leg off McKay. With nether Hamish Rutherford nor (especially) Peter Fulton making the Test opening positions their own, Latham must be close to preferment; the next cab off the rank certainly.

Wellington had to make 222 to avoid the follow-on. They raced away with 35 from the first seven overs, when it started to go awfully wrong. Stephen Murdoch was first to go, caught at second slip by Brownlie off Hamish Bennett. Grant Elliott followed in the same over, lbw not getting forward. Papps was caught behind off Logan van Beek in the next over. Pollard was bowled offering no shot to van Beek and when Woodcock went the same way as Murdoch, Wellington had lost five for 19 in six overs.

Luke Ronchi counter-attacked to the tune of 20 in 19 balls, an approach that was too risky in the circumstances. Ronchi has not made much of an impact in the New Zealand ODI team; BJ Watling would seem a more dependable option. Here, he was out with 138 still needed to avoid the follow-on and only four wickets left.

Marshalled by James Franklin, the tail became the Maquis to the top order’s retreating French army. Jeetan Patel made 40 in 102 minutes before being caught at backward point by Latham off Ellis from the last ball of the second day.

Andy McKay occupied the first half-hour of day three before giving way to Mark Gillespie, who batted with his normal pugnacious aggression but for rather longer than usual, reaching 78 from 77 balls. He fell 21 short of the follow-on target, leaving Brent Arnel to support Franklin.

This was the most gripping cricket of the two days I watched. If Wellington could scramble past the target their chances of saving the game would be greatly enhanced, with a slim chance of being offered a target on the last afternoon. But my, it was perplexing. One might think that with one wicket left to take, all out attack at both ends would be the ticket. This is not the modern way. Fielders—eight at one point— retreated en masse to the boundary when Franklin was on strike. As curiously, Franklin turned down the singles on offer even though Arnel showed himself capable of obdurate defence. The standoff continued for some time before Franklin settled matters with a couple of big strikes, one of which rattled the roof of one of the neighbouring houses. Franklin also brought up his century, a clever, careful innings that showed how much he has come on as a batsman.

That pretty well finished the match as a contest. Canterbury batted for almost three sessions without ever quite reaching the heady heights of three an over. The target of 395 in around 50 overs was no more than notional, and Murdoch’s 122-ball 17 (which I am relieved not to have seen) may have been way of protest. If so, it was misplaced. No team has a right to have a gettable target set in the fourth innings. The only way of ensuring that is to take 20 wickets.

So why did Canterbury not make a contest of it? A look at the Plunket Shield table provides the answer. Canterbury lead Wellington by 12 points, the very number available for a win. Why risk that lead against team that has demonstrated proficiency in chasing large targets this season? Against Central Districts 310 was achieved with time to spare, while in the earlier fixture against Canterbury they fell short of a target of 470 by only 11.

Also, the pitch remained as flat as Holland. The propensity for outgrounds to offer randomness as the game goes on has largely disappeared, which is a shame as entertaining cricket was often the consequence. As well as making the pitch worse, those in charge of Karori Park should improve the outfield which was funereally slow. This apart, watching first-class cricket there was thoroughly pleasant and I look forward to returning when Wellington play Northern Districts in February.

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