Sunday, April 3, 2016

Auckland wins the Plunket Shield

Wellington v Auckland, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 23 – 26 March 2016

I have ticked off an item on my cricketing wishlist by being at the Basin Reserve when Auckland won the Plunket Shield, the first time in my spectating half century that I have been present for the moment of victory in the domestic first-class competition.

Kent’s three County Championships in the seventies were all secured away from home, at the Oval, Edgbaston and Hove. Neither Canterbury nor Bristol—my most common end-of-season locations—were the venue for the away side to take the title when I was there, though my Blean correspondent was at St Lawrence when Durham claimed their first title, so has always had the advantage in this respect.

With only six teams in contention, you might think that shorter odds would have prevailed during my 19 New Zealand seasons, but not so, until now.

I was there for most of the first, third and fourth days, on for the final 90 minutes or so of day two.

Day 1

The penultimate round of the Plunket Shield, and Auckland, the leaders, visit second-placed Wellington. The home side are 23 points behind. Twenty points are the most that can be accrued from one match, so Wellington need to win (third-placed Canterbury are also in with a shout). Throw in a forecast of dodgy weather and it was no surprise to find a pitch as green and angry as the Incredible Hulk.

The pitch for the test against Australia here a few weeks ago was also described as green, but in comparison was merely a truculent off-yellow. Then, given skilful guidance by Haslewood and Siddle, the ball did just enough. As I noted at the time, few balls beat the bat or found the edge on that first morning apart from those that took wickets.

This one, however, was an English green top circa 1988, when moderate dobbers could trundle up, present the seam and pick off good batsmen. Auckland—put in, obviously—took the view that dogged defence would be futile on a day when a ball with a batsman’s name on it was around every corner. Every opportunity to garner any available runs was taken.

The outcome was 152 all out from 34 overs. Brent Arnel (who, to be fair, is more than a dobber) finished with five for 51. Auckland’s Butch-and-Sundance approach to overwhelming odds against them was justified, all the more so when Wellington’s more cautious approach failed to protect its batsmen. Only 27 runs came from the first 13 overs, but three wickets fell nevertheless.

However, after tea the greenness faded and the pitch lost just enough pace to turn it from challenging to good for playing strokes. Michael Pollard and Scott Borthwick of Durham put on 73 for the fourth wicket. Borthwick was impressive and it was a surprise when he chipped a soft catch to mid-wicket. Pollard rode his luck.

Play was ended by bad light. As is customary, this came at the point when the batsmen appeared to be seeing the ball better than at any time during the day. Wellington were 22 behind with four wickets standing.

Day 2

Wellington made 236 in their first innings, and by the time I arrived for the last 90 minutes of the day, Auckland were within 25 of negating the lead, without loss. The pitch was still tinged with green and there was some movement, but it was on the fast lane to being the usual batman’s paradise that Basin pitches tend to become by the end of the second day. There was plenty of loose bowling too.

Not that you would have known it from the whooping and hollering of the Wellington fielders, mundane dot balls lauded as if they were bursting with fiendish cunning. I’m all for positivity, but the danger here is that the bowlers come to believe that they are better than they really are.

I was at Seddon Park in Hamilton for CricInfo one day about 15 years ago, when we were joined in the press box by Glenn Turner and John Parker, teammates for Worcestershire as well as New Zealand. The conversation turned to the feedback that technology offers to modern players. “Our bowlers had feedback” said one. “It came from Norman Gifford at short leg and tended to be along the lines of ‘what are you bowling that crap for?’”  Different days.

No wickets fell before light again intervened with batting looking as easy as the Sun crossword. Auckland were 73 ahead.

Day 3

It takes some time to put on all the layers necessary to withstand a day in the southerly at the Basin, so I arrived only just in time to see Michael Guptill-Bunce reach his hundred, the second of his first-class career. A cousin of Martin Guptill, but somewhat shorter, Guptill-Bunce has an open stance and shots on both sides of the pitch. These he displayed with ever greater freedom as he progressed to 189 before falling a leading edge to cover from the first delivery with the second new ball.

Earlier, his first-wicket partnership with Jeet Ravel, worth 215, had ended when McPeake removed Ravel’s off stump. Ravel has often been mentioned when the perpetual vacancy at the top of the order in the test team is being discussed, but has not been picked thus far. He has had another good summer.

I would move Martin Guptill down the order to fill the gap created by Brendon McCullum’s retirement. Away from the torment of the new ball, Guptill would become the test batsman that his one-day achievements promise him to be. The gap between Plunket Shield and test cricket is huge, but Ravell’s consistency puts him at the head of the line to open the innings with Tom Latham (now of Kent, I am pleased to note).

With a draw almost certain to be enough to give Auckland the Shield, there was no question of a declaration. A queue formed of Auckland batsman eager to make the most of a pitch that had transformed from cornered tiger to purring tabby, eager to encourage strokes.

Mark Chapman (whose parents, we may summise, are not Beatles fans), hit a breezy, run-a-ball 73. Colin de Grandhomme’s 33 was as quick. At the close Donovan Grobbelaar was 89 not out. His innings contained as good a display of precision straight driving as I have seen for a long time; shot after shot missing the bowler’s stumps by a just a few centimetres.

A little over two years ago, Scott Borthwick was picked by England as a leg spinner, and has a test bowling average of 20.50 to show for his sole appearance at Sydney. He has been one of the highest scorers in county cricket over the past three years, but the bowling has fallen away. Borthwick wasn’t given a proper spell until Auckland had passed 400; he was tidy but unthreatening, which is not a bad report for a leggie on this pitch.

Of course, every leg spinner wants to be Shane Warne, and rightly so. They may not be able to bowl like he did, but they can mimic Warne’s theatricality. Borthwick is a star in this respect. When any ball is not met by the absolute middle of the bat, he gives us his Hamlet, a moving portrayal of the injustice of the human condition. Just like Shane Warne.  Until he lets go of the ball, at least.

Day 4

This was the day on which Auckland would probably win the Plunket Shield for the first time in seven seasons. Unless Wellington produced an improbable win, or Canterbury beat Northern Districts (which also seemed unlikely), it would be theirs by dinner time.

Grobbelaar completed his century and captain Michael Bates set about enjoying himself. He hit Borthwick for four and three sixes off successive deliveries. Never fear; when the final ball of the over was defended, Borthwick reached deep into his repertoire of pain to convince us that the rest of the over had been no more than an administrative oversight.

Auckland’s total of 598 was the highest in a domestic game at the Basin. Wellington‘s target was 515 at about six an over, the tallest of orders even on such a benign surface. There was no doubt that they would give it a go.

By lunch they had reached a solid 68 for one from 19 overs, though it would have been two had the perfect Nethula googly that bowled Murdoch not been a no ball, one of three the leg spinner bowled in his first two overs. The luck continued to run with Wellington and Murdoch after the interval. A top edge could have been caught by either mid on or deep mid-wicket, but with exquisite politeness they left it to each other. They probably laughed about it later, but not at the time. The second-wicket partnership between Murdoch and Woodcock was worth 144 when Murdoch was bowled by Nethula.

Any residual hope disappeared after tea, with the loss of four wickets for 23 runs. To their credit, Wellington focused on saving the game. An eighth-wicket stand of 60 between Verma and Blundell was central to enabling them to do so. Verma remained unbeaten at the end.

The end of the game at the expiry of the 16 overs compulsory in the final hour was not quite the moment of triumph, as play was still in progress in Christchurch. But Canterbury had given up hope at about the same time as Wellington and had been blocking for an hour, so it was as good as. I had expected scenes of uninhibited joy and emotion, but not so. The two teams lined up, shook hands and left the field, and that was that. It was much like I expect it was at the Oval in 1970; Colin Cowdrey proffering an outstretched hand and Micky Stewart calling for three cheers.

Nevertheless, I am happy to be able to give the ultimate affirmation of the sports fan: I was there.

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