#plunketshield trended briefly on Twitter in Wellington on the first day of this game, which was heartening, but more indicative of a capital city that gives up giving a damn about anything much at this time in December, rather than one suddenly in thrall to the delights of first-class cricket.
My Life in Cricket Scorecards had intended to be present throughout this game, but single-digit temperatures and a Rottweiler southerly on the first two days meant that it was not until the third morning that I took my seat at the Basin—the tweeting hoards absent, I noticed—with Otago 100 for two in reply to Wellington’s 328.
The best batting for Otago came from Neil Broom and Anaru Kitchen, but the biggest partnership of the innings was only 58. With more than half of the second day had been lost to rain, the game needed moving along and a declaration came at 279 for eight, conceding a lead of 49.
Michael Papps and Luke Woodcock spent the last session putting on a rapid unbeaten double-century opening partnership for Wellington. Almost half the overs in this period were bowled either by inexperienced leg spinner Rhys Phillips, or by Anaru Kitchen, whose slow left arm has reaped four wickets in 52 first-class appearances.
Was there a slightly unpleasant taste to all this, the disappointment of discovering that the cream topping the trifle is artificial, not the genuine full fat? In short, was it declaration bowling?
Yes and no. The bowlers were doing their best, but had Otago skipper Hamish Rutherford been really determined to staunch the flow, others would have been given the ball on the third evening. Even so, attack leader Jacob Duffy bowled more than double the overs that anybody else did over the innings as a whole. So while Otago would have bowled Wellington out if they could, the inevitability of a target being set on the fourth morning was accepted. I don’t think that a deal was done.
Michael Papps’ agony in the nineties was powerful evidence for the defence. He cut and pulled as forcefully as ever, and was particularly hard on Phillips’ nervous leggies. Yet with the century just a shot away, it was suddenly as if he was batting at the bottom of the sea, feet heavy, hands slow. For a couple of overs he offered respect to Kitchen’s nondescript bowling as if under the impression that it was a senior member of the royal family.
It was Papps’ 28th first-class century, so it was not as if he was unfamiliar with the situation. The achievement of a century has been built into a cult, and cults mess with the minds of reasonable people.
After Papps finally forced a cut through the infield to bring up three figures he was away again, and raced to 132 before getting out early on the final morning. An hour’s tonking, led by Woodcock who reached 131, and Wellington set Otago a target of 355, four an over for a minimum of 86 overs.
The pitch was as pacey as has there has been at the Basin for quite a few seasons. This was to everyone’s advantage (except, as we will see, an aging medium pacer in whom it induced delusions of a return to a long-past youth of bouncers and blood); the quicker bowlers found reward for effort; a canny spinner could employ the bounce to good effect; and batsmen could play shots with confidence.
So Hamish Rutherford was most unfortunate to be out early, lbw to one of the very few balls all day to keep low. There followed an exchange of what it would be inaccurate to call pleasantries between the batsman and the bowler, Brent Arnel.
Arnel was on a mission; today was the day he would revive Bodyline. To both Brad Wilson and later Derek de Boorder he placed as many as four legside close catchers, with a deep square leg too. His plan was to pepper the batsmen with short-pitched deliveries that they would fend off into the hands of the waiting predators, just like Larwood and Voce.
Wilson and de Boorder had to avoid playing shots. They were mostly able to do this by simply standing there as the ball passed high or wide of them. If anybody at the Basin on Sunday had said “there are two teams out there, but only one is playing cricket” it would only be because Arnel appeared to have abandoned the game in favour of pie throwing.
Yet it worked.
While de Boorder had been content to leave all but the most punishable of Arnel’s nonsense, Neil Broom, with the confidence that being 85 not out gives you, had a go at a perambulating long hop that was too straight to be pulled. A thin edge to the keeper resulted.
At that point Otago had eased ahead, needing 128 more with six wickets standing and two batsmen set. It turned the game.
Jeetan Patel was the difference. He had two wickets already, following three in the first innings. Brad Wilson had hit him for a straight six, but when he attempted a repeat later in the same over found too late that it was a little quicker, a little fuller. Caught and bowled. Next over, Kitchen followed, bowled playing forward.
Once the Broom/de Boorder partnership was broken Patel was too clever for the rest of the order and last six wickets fell for 35, four to the off spinner. Wellington won by 92 runs.
Which brings us to the Jeetan Patel question: he is by far and away the best spinner in New Zealand, the most respected slow bowler in county cricket (if available he would be a shoo in for the England test team) and a current Wisden Cricketer of the Year. So why is he not in the national team?
The surprising thing is not the answer, but that the question is never asked. Patel has not played for New Zealand since the tour of South Africa when he staged his infamous retreat to square leg against Dale Steyn’s bowling. He was picked for the West Indies tour last year, but put his county commitments first, which is, presumably, why he is no longer considered. But does it matter that he picks and chooses? There is Australia to beat, and had Patel played at Adelaide he might just have made the difference. But neither public nor media seem to raise the possibility. We, the faithful few at the Basin, will be happy to have him to ourselves.