Saturday, March 22, 2014

Wellington v Otago, 50 overs, Basin Reserve, 9 March 2014

I have drawn attention before to the talent of the Wellington cricket team for picking defeat from the pocket of victory. Today at the Basin they abandoned petty crime and entered the world of the big heist. Defeat was locked securely in a strong room located in a deep cave, protected by armed guards and with a security system designed by NASA. Yet Wellington had a plan to spring it that came within a whisker of working.

When Brad Scott was ninth out, Otago needed 37 from 14 balls, and only a single was added in the rest of that over.  Mark Gillespie bowled the penultimate over from the northern end. Some of us have not forgotten—will never forget—the day five years ago when Northern Districts, also with nine down, needed ten from the last two balls of the game. Gillespie, again from the northern end, contrived to bowl two legside long hops that needed minimal assistance from Peter McGlashan to find their way over the wall by the Reid Gates to take the game.

Now it was full tosses that Gillespie served up as the dish of the day. Two in the over were just right for the left-handed Sam Wells to deposit on the bank on the Victoria Tunnel side of the ground. Six further runs were gleaned from the rest of the over.  

But eighteen from the over would have to be repeated for Otago to take the game, which was reassuring; how often has that happened? Even so, the pessimism that Wellington folk carry in their pockets to most of the capital’s sporting events was heard murmuring as Andy McKay prepared to bowl the final over.

Nick Beard took a single from the first ball. Wells got two from the next ball, followed by an air shot to the third. With fifteen needed from three balls, some people—almost certainly newcomers to the capital—were heard to pass comment along the lines of “it’s all over” and “they can’t throw it away from here”. The rest of us were not even slightly surprised when Wells took a stride down the pitch to hit the fourth ball of the over for six over long off, nor when the fifth ball went the same way. This brought up a 28-ball half century for Wells.

So three were needed from the final ball. After resolutions had been passed and the minutes taken at the conference convened to set the field that is compulsory on these occasions, McKay bowled the final ball. Again Wells strode forward and sent the ball high in the air toward the Adelaide Road. It seemed for a moment that he had hit it with sufficient timing to send it all the way, but it began to descend too early, towards Grant Elliott at long off. Had he dropped it, they would have run two and tied the game, but Elliott has steady nerves and held on safely.

Wellington had made 308 batting first, always an impressive score in a 50-over game, but not exceptional on a pitch that appeared perfectly paced for easy timing of bat on ball. The foundation of the innings was a first-wicket partnership of 144 between Stephen Murdoch and Michael Papps. Murdoch dominated the partnership and was first out for 89. I have not seen him bat as fluently before. Papps played an uncharacteristically measured innings before falling caught behind off the bowling of off spinner Mark Craig two short of his century.

The highlight of the rest of the innings was a 31-ball 47 by keeper Tom Blundell, who was quick to take advantage of the current fad in one-day field setting, which is to use all available boundary fielders on the onside, with all the fielders inside the ring on the off. Moreover, two of those fielders should be behind square and standing close enough to each other to dance between deliveries. No doubt this is a rational solution to the increased restrictions on boundary fielders in the final ten overs, but it means that bowlers have to have the accuracy of a tailor threading a needle. Blundell exposed the risk inherent in this approach by stepping back to crash three boundaries through the offside in the same over.

Scott was Otago’s best bowler, so why he only bowled nine overs is a mystery. Swapping the bowling around like kids do conkers is all very well, but sometimes the wood becomes invisible behind all the trees.

A target of 309 needs a good start, and that is what Otago got, barring the early loss of Hamish Rutherford.  Aaron Redmond and Michael Bracewell put on 155 for the second wicket, déjà vu for those of us who were at the Basin in October when the same pair put on 271. Redmond was the more aggressive today, twice introducing a cricket ball into the traffic outside the Stewie Dempster Gates.

When Bracewell was out, caught at mid on off a mistimed pull, Otago needed 141 from 20 overs, very achievable on a benevolent pitch. Redmond and ten Doeschate chugged pleasantly along until the 37th over when the match turned on a moment. Ten Doeschate turned a ball straight to Grant Elliott at backward point. Elliott is a highly competent fielder and that knowledge should have been sufficient to ensure that we moved to the next delivery without further incident. Once Elliott had spotted that Redmond was hurtling from the non-striker’s end as if the umpire had applied a cattle prod, it was a simple matter for him to return the ball to Blundell, who completed the formalities.

Redmond was on 98 at the time, which might explain it. In October he had become transfixed for some time in the nineties, so maybe the proximity of a century scrambled his head. The significance of the moment became clear next ball, when Jesse Ryder swiped at a ball outside off stump and was judged by the umpire to have been caught behind. Ryder said nothing, but could not have made his disagreement with the decision clearer had he toured the ground expressing it through a megaphone.

From that moment, the Otago innings resembled a man sliding down a cliff, the scouring of his fingernails on its face a record of his futile attempts to slow his fall. Yet, at the same time Wellington were frantically tunnelling through to save them, and broke through only a second too late.


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