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Thursday, January 5, 2017

A cricketing degustation

Wellington v Otago, T20, Basin Reserve, 3 January 2017
There is the danger with T20 of coming to resemble Mrs Mary Whitehouse, who spent the seventies scanning the Radio Times in search of programmes to watch and be offended by. She would then campaign to have these programmes banned so that others could not gain the pleasure from them that she had, in her own way.

Many of the readers of these pieces will share my reservations about T20, and we need not again rehearse what they are. I am aghast that the school summer holiday period in England will henceforth be almost entirely given over it. Had that been so in the seventies, my whole life might have taken a very different course.

But if you go to a T20 game (other than at gunpoint) you should enter into the spirit of the occasion and judge it on its own terms, like an uncle who maintains a broad smile while wearing the reindeer-decorated jersey he had for Christmas. So I watched a five-over game, which was decided by a one-over game, and reader, I enjoyed it.

The cricket itself was not the only factor, but then it never is. There was bureaucratic confusion worthy of the Byzantine Empire at its peak to enjoy, of which more later, and there was the Basin itself, which for a week or so at this time of year acquires a scarlet sash of pohutukawa flowers that wraps its eastern side and reaches up the hill to the Governor-General’s residence (we have a new GG, by the way; a country largely dependent upon dairy farming for its prosperity now has a vegan head of state).

The game was supposed to start at two, but it had rained for most of the day, so it came as a surprise to hear just after four that the captains were about to toss up for a five-overs-a-side contest. I wouldn’t usually bother in these circumstances, but this season I have signed up for a Wellington cricket membership, so could chalk up a new spectating experience at no cost. I have watched a few ten-over games on rainy Sunday afternoons in England, but nothing this truncated, a gobbet of a game.

Had it not rained I would have missed David Warner’s century before lunch on the first day in Sydney, only the fifth such achievement in test history, and a treat to watch, though it is sad to see Misbah-ul-Haq’s heroic tenure of the Pakistan captaincy (the cricketing equivalent of the Italian prime ministership) ending so badly, on and off the field.

On most days the cricket would have been called off after several hours’ rain, but different criteria apply to T20 games, and rightly so. As ever, the positions taken on whether there should be play bore no relation to the conditions, depending instead on the stakes for either team. This was the final day of round-robin games. Central Districts had already secured top place, so will host the final on the world’s most beautiful postage stamp, Pukekura Park in New Plymouth. Second and third will play off to be their opponents. A win for Wellington would take them into the semi-final. An abandonment would be of no use to them. Otago had already secured the wooden spoon, so had only a laundry bill to gain from playing the game.

Which explains why, when I arrived at the Basin, the umpires and the Wellington players were on the field ready to start, but the Otago batsman were nowhere to be seen. This remained the case for the next five minutes or so, until at last the newly agoraphobic Rutherford and Kitchen were coaxed from the dressing room. Then, something else that I had not seen before (today was a bran tub full of new experiences): Hamish Bennett was ready to bowl the first over from the southern end, with the umpire in place behind the stumps (you will recall that they had had some time to think about this while waiting for the batsmen). At the last minute the decision was made to switch to the northern end, with Arnel opening, which necessitated late rearrangement of fielders and umpires.

What is a par score in a five-over game? I thought about 60, but given that both sides here made 48, that must be it. The only wicket of the Otago innings came from its final delivery, which raises the question of whether the openers should have pushed it a bit more. In the circumstances, Anaru Kitchen’s 16 from 17 balls seems a bit thin.

Bowling is a losing lottery ticket in these circumstances, so Hamish Bennett’s effort in conceding only four runs in his over was particularly meritorious.  

Michael Papps hit the second ball of the Wellington innings onto the bank behind long leg and at 20 without loss after 11 balls it all seemed a bit of a procession. But Marshall was caught at mid on, and from the first two balls of the next over, Namibian international Christi Viljoen had Blundell caught at fine leg and then yorked Papps.

Michael Pollard deployed the heave over midwicket to great effect, with two sixes, but was plumb lbw trying to repeat. He will make seventies in longer forms that do not have the value that 14 did here.

Eight were needed from the last over, bowled by Duffy. But which one?  I assumed that it was Jacob Duffy, Otago’s young quick, but no. It was Ryan Duffy, who is listed as a wicketkeeper by CricInfo, and who has bowled just two overs in 18 first-class matches spread over three years. He had never played T20 until New Year’s Day, but now finds himself reinvented as a closer (to use a baseball term) in this format. I wonder how you find out that the reserve keeper is a secret death bowler? He did a decent job here.

A single from Elliott, then Taylor skyed a catch to mid on. Seven from four. Grant Elliott—the hero of the World Cup semi-final—lifted the next ball over mid off for four. Why bowl full with mid off up? With three needed from three it seemed that what was left were mere formalities, but Elliott left the next one hoping for a high wide call, which didn’t come. The umpires were bowler friendly in their application of this rule, but consistently so. A single off the fifth ball mean that it was two to win, one for a super over.

Luke Woodcock was on strike for the first time. He is a southern hemisphere Darren Stevens, a man who exudes reliability and reassurance. Duffy’s attempted yorker was a little under-pitched and was driven straight of long off. It looked a certain two, but Michael Bracewell was quickly to it and he threw to the keeper’s end with the precision of Phil Taylor going for double top. Woodcock was run out by a metre.

So it was to be a super over. Or was it? We now had one of those disputes that cricket, and cricket alone, can conjure out of the ether. It would be inconceivable that a drawn football match in a competition that had used penalty shoot-outs throughout the season would then be paused to consider whether, on this one occasion, there was something in the rulebook that meant that the shoot-out could not take place. Yet that was what happened here.

This was post-truth cricket. How the idea emerged that somehow there was a sub-subclause somewhere that said that there was no time left to bowl two overs, who knows? But it took hold and meant that there was a delay of more than 15 minutes—longer than it would take to get the super over done—during which the Middle East peace process was recreated on the outfield with no brow left unfurrowed. I hardly need add that as these discussions continued, the sun came out in Wellington for the first time this year, and spectators were shedding layers of clothing.

Eventually, the obvious decision was reached and the super over was on (the sub committee set up to establish the religion of the Pope will report this time next year).

Wellington batted first, with Neil Wagner bowling. The first ball was decisive. It was called as a no ball for being above waist height. Michael Pollard applied his legside heave to send the free hit out of the ground, and followed with another later in the over, setting 20 as the total to beat.

Hamish Bennett bowled a tight, thoughtful over for the second time this afternoon restricting Otago to eight and taking two wickets, which is all out in a super over.

Wellington were through to the knock out phase, an outcome that looked improbable after their first four matches, all of which were lost. Even better news followed. Auckland, who would claim the right to play the semi-final at home if they beat Central Districts, lost despite scoring 212 in their 20 overs. Rain intervened and CD’s 82 without loss in eight overs satisfied not only Mr Duckworth, but also Mr Lewis, so Wellington host Canterbury in the semi-final.

This was as unusual an hour or so as I have spent at the cricket. It was a cricketing degustation, tasty and intriguing, not as nourishing as a full plate, but enjoyable nonetheless.

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