Monday, January 9, 2017

Wellington v Canterbury, T20 semi-final, Basin Reserve, 5 February 2017



Arriving at the Basin with the bank already filling I was taken back to seventies mornings when the smell of bacon frying on campfires in the car park meant that a big knockout game was on at St Lawrence.

Marketing hyperbole has undermined the language of sport. Rugby league in this part of the world is particularly keen to pretend that every game is a final. This match was billed as the preliminary final. But this was the game to decide who would play in the final, so a semi-final is what it really was.

With a bit of imagination and a little licence this one could have been sold as over-35s v under-35s. Wellington had five players in the former category, plus Woodcock who is only a couple of months short. Canterbury had only Peter Fulton.

Both sides have had their progress in the competition aided by being largely untroubled by the selectors. Only Luke Ronchi was missing on international duty from the Wellington team, and the selectors thoughtfully allowed Matt Henry to return to the Canterbury team following an indifferent performance in the T20 against Bangladesh in Napier the previous evening.

However, Canterbury had three other players who have been selected for New Zealand in one form or another this season—Henry Nicholls, Todd Astle and Kent’s Tom Latham—and looked the stronger team on paper.

Not that Latham had much influence on the game; he went early, lbw to a full toss that was quite the worst ball that Hamish Bennett bowled in his opening spell. That brought together Henry Nicholls and Chad Bowes for the best batting of the game, a second-wicket partnership of 69 in nine overs. Nicholls we know about, but I’d not heard of Bowes before. He’s a member of the white South African cricketing diaspora, captain of the Proteas under-19 team in 2012. Now he wants to play for New Zealand (which is, at least, preferable to wanting to play for Hampshire).

Bowes is a proper batsman whose 56 from 41 balls was full of intelligent orthodox shots. He hit eight fours, three of which were from successive deliveries from Brent Arnel, an interest-free advance from a payday loan shark. Nicholls also scored fours from three successive balls, off Luke Woodcock, though they were his only boundaries. He is a bat-through sort of batsman, which can be a euphemism for not having that top gear that is needed to flay a bowler in T20.

When Bowes was out in the 13th over, the score was 96 for two, so 180-plus was in prospect. But Jeetan Patel had already set about cutting off the blood supply. At last, Patel is getting the recognition as a master practitioner at home that he enjoys in England. When he came on the Canterbury innings was a roaring lion. When he finished, it was tamely eating from his hand.

Canterbury’s assistant coach Brendon Donkers was on the radio on the morning of the game saying that T20 was all about boundaries, there being a strong correlation between hitting the most boundaries and winning the game. He went as far as to say “forget about the singles”. A truism perhaps, and a petard to be hoisted by. Patel conceded only one four, a reverse sweep by Peter Fulton off the fourth ball of his fourth over.

Hamish Bennett was even more miserly, going for just 18 from his four overs with wickets from the last two balls of the innings. Canterbury’s total of 151 looked at least 15 short of a break-even score.

For many years Hamish Marshall was confused with his identical twin James. Now he has another doppelganger at the other end in Michael Papps. Both are short, old (in cricketing terms) and bat pugnaciously with a fusion of hard-hit conventional shots and new-fangled improvisation. Their fifty partnership for the first wicket came up from the first ball of the fifth over. Matt Henry took a particular pounding and may have wished that he had stayed in the Hawke’s Bay sun.

It seemed like a procession, but as has been related in these columns often enough, Wellington’s sports teams have a talent for escaping from match-winning situations that would spring them from Colditz. Here leg-spinner Todd Astle was the agent of change. He came on as soon as the fielding restrictions were relaxed and struck immediately taking a hard-hit return catch to get rid of Marshall.

We had a strong earthquake here in Wellington a couple of months ago that has led to the demolition of a couple of large buildings and design faults being exposed in others. Earthquake Astle revealed structural failings in the Wellington batting. The foundations were shaky and innings began to suffer from liquefaction. Papps was bowled by a perfect googly and 103 for one became 110 for five inside three overs.

Astle bowled his spell through, which supports my idea that sometimes captains meddle too much with the bowling roster in T20. Maybe he could have been risked during the powerplay.

With better support from the other end Astle would have won the game, but instead there was a curious effort from off-spinner Tim Johnston. I have been reading Jon Hotten’s The Meaning of Cricket, which contains accounts of the yips suffered by various bowlers, that describing the psychological implosion of Scott Boswell of Leicestershire in a one-day final at Lord’s being particularly harrowing:

“It took Scott Boswell a decade to rebuild his relationship with the game that had dominated his life.”

Perhaps because this was fresh in my mind, when Johnston failed to release the ball in the delivery stride a couple of times, I began to have my suspicions. He did so again, this time giving Papps a “Mankading” warning, which I thought might have been a cover story. Then came a slow beamer to Blundell. The resulting free hit went for six and ultimately made all the difference. Johnston was taken off after two overs, but surprisingly brought back later, when it was a choice between him and the out-of-touch Logan van Beek. The yips were not apparent this time, but a six by Taylor landed on the roof of the merchandising stall and a quicker delivery resulted in four byes.

The only bowler I have seen have a complete meltdown in this way was the great Australian quick Graham McKenzie, as unlikely a victim of the yips as could be imagined. It happened in a Sunday League game at Folkestone in 1971. McKenzie had bowled three overs with no hint that anything was awry, but in his fourth started to bowl front foot no-balls—called by his compatriot Bill Alley—and couldn’t stop, even when he reduced his run-up to three paces. Maybe the 15-yard restriction on run-ups that applied in the Sunday League at that time had an effect, but McKenzie’s was an economical approach to the crease that made it seem unlikely. The over was 14 deliveries long and went for 31, as many as I have seen come from one over. It was as strange a thing as I have witnessed as a spectator.

Two more wickets kept the collective blood pressure of Wellington supporters right up there, and the final over began with five needed and three wickets standing. Here I draw your attention to my comparison in my last post of Luke Woodcock to Darren Stevens in terms of reliability and reassurance. Two cover drives to the boundary off van Beek off the first two balls of the over and it was done.

Postscript:

The final took place just two days later, with Wellington travelling to Pukekura Park, New Plymouth to play Central Districts. I watched on TV. 4,000 were crammed into the most beautiful cricket ground I know of, spread out across one row of benches on each level of the grass ziggurats that tower over the ground on three sides.

Earlier this season a new world T20 record for a match aggregate was set on the ground, with CD falling one short of Otago’s 249. A runfest was expected, so when Wellington found themselves at eight for two, and later 114 for seven, hope had left the ground. An unbroken partnership of 58 by Taylor and Patel guided Wellington to the lower foothills of respectability, but a trouncing still appeared inevitable.

But by the end of the third over of the CD innings, Mahela Jayawardene and Jesse Ryder had both gone for ducks and the favourites never got going. Wellington won by 14 runs, a street in T20 terms.

I have enjoyed the later stages of the competition more than I thought I would because it has been less predictable than the shortest form can often be and there has been some good, thinking cricket. The fact that it is not presented in the overblown way that the Big Bash is also helps, particularly in the TV commentary which has been sensible and understated, as is the Kiwi way.

Next, the first of two test matches at the Basin this season, against Bangladesh.


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