Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Wellington v Auckland, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 11 to 14 December 2014

Fourth day

My Life in Cricket Scorecards achieved a lifetime’s ambition at 10 am on Sunday morning; for the first ten minutes of the day it constituted the entire crowd. The first two-and-a-half overs were its private entertainment and it could barely suppress a cry of “Proceed!” before the first ball was bowled.

The early start was down to the weather, which had curtailed progress over the first three days. Play did not begin on the third day until 4 pm when the temperature was measured at six degrees. A penguin wouldn’t accept a free ticket in those conditions. I’m sure that the mercury dropped to similar levels on the Hammond Room roof at the County Ground, Bristol in April days of yore, but I was younger then and my desperation for cricket after the long English winter always set my judgement askew.

So it was not until the fourth day of this Plunket Shield game that I put in my first appearance of the season. Overnight, Wellington were 77 ahead with seven wickets standing, so anything could happen. That’s the delight of first-class cricket: a run chase; a collapse; a canny declaration; elegant attack; sticky defence; the ball turning square; the ball not turning at all; a great catch; a missed stumping; a shambolic run out. Or the whole thing can end in torpid anti-climax. A night at the theatre with a different ending every performance.

One thing was certain: a Cachopa would be involved. There were three of them playing for Auckland: Carl, the all-rounder, Craig, the opening batsman, and Brad, the wicket-keeper. All the size of pixies. In Wellington’s first innings the Cachopii had a hand in nine of the ten wickets.

Today’s script dropped some heavy clues about the denouement almost before the orchestra had finished playing the overture. Left-arm opening bowler Michael Bates removed both the incumbent batsmen in the first quarter of an hour. Stephen Murdoch was caught behind driving at a ball that left him. Tom Blundell was struck on the pads playing across the line. Umpire Ashley Mehrotra took an age to rule. By the time the finger was raised Blundell had already taken several steps towards the rooms.

Another thing that makes cricket the king of pastimes is that even when you have watched for as long as I have it will still conjure something new. Today, when fast bowler Matthew Quinn bowled to debutant Henry Walsh, he did so with seven in the slip cordon, a silly mid off and a mid off. Nobody left to field on the legside then. So when Walsh turned a ball from outside off stump into the vacant acres, as was inevitable, it was the bowler who had to pursue it.

Rob Nicol's 9 - 0 field for Matt Quinn
The best that can be said for this is that it offered Rob Nicol (the Auckland captain) a controlled environment in which to exercise his psychological need to test half-witted theories, rather than exposing society at large to harm.

Walsh lasted for ten overs before losing his leg stump to Bates. It took only a further eight overs for Auckland to finish Wellington off. The most eye-catching feature of the lower-order batting was a series of millionaire off drives from Ili Tugaga, his preferred approach to getting off the mark. When, against expectation, he succeeded in hitting the ball with one of these pieces of speculation, he was caught at mid off for a duck.

That was Carl Cachopa’s third wicket; Bates finished with four for 47.

So what explains Wellington’s subsidence? There was movement, certainly, though the report that described the pitch as “green” was exaggerating, from what I could see at least.

Just as happened when I watched Gloucestershire collapse on the first morning against Kent in September, the ball tended to find the edge of the bat rather than beating it entirely, and most of the edges went to hand. Still, seven wickets had fallen for 50 today, so Auckland’s target of 128 might not be the early Christmas present it seemed.

Opener Jeet Ravel started impressively. He is a tall left-hander with a wide stance and expansive style. A square-driven boundary off Arnel was the shot of the day, but Ravel was out quirkily off the next delivery. As the ball rose off his thigh pad, Ravel attempted to lift his arms clear, but in doing so committed the very indiscretion he was seeking to avoid. He deflected the ball with just enough power to dislodge one bail when it came into contact with the stumps.

Two of the Cachopii—Carl and Craig—were now united. Carl had earlier survived a Gillespie appeal on the grounds that it was too high on the leg, a rare event for one of the brotherhood. The partnership was worth only four when Craig was bowled by a full-length Matt McEwan delivery.

With Auckland 29 for two, Wellington were bouncy. Another couple of wickets and they would be on top.

Colin Munro put an end to such pretensions. Munro is one of those cricketers who takes much the same approach regardless of the format or state of the game. Hard, clean hitting is to Munro what cold baths were to the Victorians: the palliative for all ills.

Here, 59 off 49 balls, 52 of them from boundaries (four sixes), settled the matter. He was particularly harsh on the normally abstemious Arnel.

Munro was out 24 short of victory, but look at the scorecard and you will be misled. It says that he was caught by Walsh. It was indeed Walsh who caught the ball on the long-off boundary, but he was still shuffling his feet to ensure that he did not connect with the boundary rope when he threw the ball to the nearby McEwan, who should therefore be credited with the catch.

McEwan is a bustling medium-fast bowler in the manner and shape of Tim Bresnan. This was his Wellington debut after a couple of seasons with Canterbury. The ball followed him about for a while. He took a fine catch to get rid of Carl Cachopa, running back with his hands above his head, but dropped an even harder chance diving in from the fine-leg boundary in a brave attempt to intercept a Nicol top edge.

It was too late to make a shred of difference anyway. Auckland won the game by six wickets and were top of the table after two rounds. Most of the Plunket Shield will be played while the World Cup is in progress, so I may be a lone spectator again before the season is out.

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