Sunday, February 5, 2017

Peak McPeake at the Basin

Watching one-day cricket these days is akin to following the later career of Frank Sinatra. You think he’s done, but he makes another comeback and you are grateful for it, but the pleasure is tempered; you know that he will die one day soon.

In England the 50-over competition is to become an early-season event, best sponsored by a manufacturer of thermal foundation garments. And this is just a holding position before it becomes a means of occupying players who not good—or rather marketable—enough to get a city T20 contract.

Here in New Zealand we have our own ingenious methods of counter-marketing, the art of putting people off going to the cricket. The main stand at the Basin is currently out of commission, so there is no chance a seat behind the arm. The members’ lounge is open, but gaining admission to it has been a challenge worthy of one of those eighties game shows like The Krypton Factor or The Crystal Maze, such were the number of fences and locked doors placed in the path of the member thirsting for their complementary coffee.

On Wednesday for the Central Districts game, an added disincentive was the presence on the upper deck of three sinister figures clad in orange full-body suits complete with breathing masks. The sign reading “Danger asbestos removal in progress” was short on reassurance on a day when Wellington’s gale-force winds were in full voice.

Today, another refinement in spectator deterrence: the sign outside the ground advertising the fixture said that it was playing played on Sunday rather than Saturday, as was actually the case.

But the biggest weapon in spectator counter-insurgence is, of course, the Wellington weather. When the fixtures for this season were published, I looked forward to seeing all four of Wellington’s home games in this competition. How touchingly na├»ve. We all know that summer’s lease hath all too short a date, but even so, in Wellington it needs to get a decent lawyer to look at the small print.

The first of these games, against Auckland, was scheduled for a day on which Wellington appeared to be staging a city-wide performance of The Tempest. My Khandallah correspondent, who has flown into Wellington hundreds of times, ranked her landing that afternoon as the second-worst ever, on the basis that the plane made its way down a considerable portion of the runway at a perilous angle with only one wheel in contact with the ground. Abandoned without a ball bowled.

The second, against Canterbury, began in mid-afternoon as a 27-over game, but the rain returned to leave the result in the hands of Messrs Duckworth and Lewis, who ruled in favour of the home team.

The third, against Central Districts, began in a gale strong enough to redistribute the markers for the 30-metre circle randomly around the field. The rain returned after 30 overs of the CD innings and that was that. Or was it rain? The Met Service data records rainfall of only 0.4 mm that day, possibly a record for the least amount ever to cause a game to be abandoned. Yet nobody disputed the decision to keep the players off the field, the evidence being there before our eyes. The thing is that to be measured, rain has to fall to earth. The moisture here was driven horizontally by the gale, condemned like the wandering albatross to spend most of its existence in flight. Either that or it was asbestos flakes.

Remarkably, this spell of cricket as played by Noah left Wellington top of the table, each curtailment or abandonment working in their favour. Clearly, Wellington’s mistake all these years has been to take the field when prosperity lay in staying in the changing sheds.

So it was wonderful just to sit in the sun at the Basin today, never mind the cricket. A win for Wellington would keep them at the top of the table with one more to play, while Otago needed a victory to maintain their interest in the competition. The visitors won the toss and elected to bat.

With Hamish Rutherford injured, Croudis and Rippon were an unfamiliar opening pair, both having made their Otago debuts only in the last couple of weeks. Rippon is the epitome of the modern cricketer: a South African who has represented the Netherlands, kolpaked for Sussex, and is now trying his luck on the South Island.

Wanting to know more about him, I looked Croudis up on CricInfo, only to discover that it doesn’t know where or when he was born, or even what his names are. The Otago Daily Times was better informed. Gregor Croudis is 23 and was preparing to start his first teaching job when called up by the province.

The pair made a slow start against the accuracy of Arnel and Bennett, who removed Rippon’s off stump in the eighth over with the score only 25. Bennett is bowling superbly at the moment, quite as well as when he was picked for New Zealand a few seasons ago.

Arnel tired in the last of his five-over spell and was twice driven to the cover boundary by Croudis, who also lifted Taylor over square leg for the first six of the game. At 72 for one in the fifteenth over Otago were well-placed but the entry of Jeetan Patel into the attack changed the game as it so often does on either side of the world.

The off spinner immediately trapped Croudon lbw, punishing the batsman’s temerity in coming down the pitch. In the coming weeks Croudon will often see the same expression of truculent disbelief that he displayed here on the faces of his new students.

Patel had Eathorne caught behind cutting in his next over, but it was Ian McPeake who took out the middle order, winning the game for Wellington in the process. McPeake was twelfth man for the early games in the 50-over competition, until an injury to Anurag Verma gave him a chance.

Today, we experienced peak McPeake. Bowling his ten-over spell straight through, he accounted for numbers four to seven in the Otago order. Three were caught behind by Luke Ronchi, the other at second slip by Michael Papps. There was a touch of green and good bounce in the pitch but only as a reward for spot-on bowling, which is what McPeake produced, at a decent pace too. He finished with four for 33.

Luke Woodcock replaced Patel (two for 11 at that stage) at the southern end, which released the pressure a little, with the left-armer going for two fours in his second over. Hamish Marshall might have kept Patel going with the aim of bowling Otago out, but Woodcock removed de Boorder caught at mid-wicket from a half-hearted shot after the batsman came down the wicket, leaving Otago at 114 for eight.

Christi Viljoen—another lost Vortrekker—hit brightly for a few overs, but Arnel returned to have Smith leg before, and Viljoen was caught at deep mid-wicket to end the innings. Pollard misjudged the catch completely, but held on thanks to a last-second sprawl. Patel, exemplary as ever, finished with three for 23. The target was 154, with a bonus point available if it was achieved within 40 overs.

Even after all this time cricket produces surprises, something I have not seen before. Today it was a left-arm wrist spinner—Rippon—opening the bowling. I haven’t seen many of this genre bowl at all: Sobers possibly, Bernard Julien occasionally, Paul Adams inconsequentially. I saw the South African twice in tests, and checking the records it seems that I witnessed his final test spell, at Hamilton in 2004, all three overs of it, but that’s all. There must have been others, but I can’t think who offhand.

Rippon bowled one over for three runs but was then taken off. Given that it was such a noteworthy event it was a surprise that the official record still (at the time of writing) claims that Josh Finnie bowled that over. Finnie is an off spinner, so not easily confused with a left-arm bowler of any kind. Besides, the bowler had “Rippon” on the back of his shirt which I’d have thought would have been helpful.

Viljoen took the new ball from the northern end. He bowls with a front-on windmill action reminiscent of Max Walker or, for older readers, AL “Froggy” Thomson, whose brief international career included taking the first ODI wicket. Viljoen had Papps caught behind, flailing at a wide one in his second over.

Tom Blundell was the other opener. This time last week Blundell thought that he was first-choice keeper for the national one-day side; now he is second-choice for Wellington, having been supplanted by Latham and Ronchi (returning from injury) respectively. Here, with Hamish Marshall, he moved things along quickly, with five fours off seven balls at one point.

Rippon returned (or, as the scorers would have it, came on) but was a caricature of a wrist spinner, pitching the ball (if at all) anywhere but a length.

The introduction of 18-year-old Nathan Smith (right-arm medium fast) was more successful. He accounted for both Marshall and Blundell in his first over, the first lbw and the second caught at mid on. There was an element of variable bounce and pace about both dismissals.

Ronchi and Taylor chose the direct route to victory, with three sixes between them. They put on 52 for the fourth wicket, 21 short of victory when Pollard was bowled by another ball that kept very low. 200 would have been a challenging target with the pitch deflating by the minute. Ronchi and Woodcock both went before the end, leaving the margin of four wickets look closer than it was.

With only 26 overs needed, the bonus point was achieved, leaving Wellington two points clear at the top of the table with one round-robin game to play. The knock-out phase takes the form of 1 v 2 (winner hosts the final), 3 v 4 (loser out), then the loser of the first game v the winner of the second for the other final place. Wellington have to beat Canterbury in midweek, but thoughts turned to a semi-final at the Basin next weekend.

But the Stop Cricket at the Basin (SCAB) group is cleverer than we thought. There is a concert featuring some of New Zealand’s best-known artistes scheduled for the Basin on semi-final day. Presumably the local authorities regarded the possibility of Wellington gaining a top-three place as being too fanciful to take into consideration. There being no other venue available (and why would there be in a city of 400,000 people, the nation’s capital?), Wellington would take the game far enough away not to need the men in orange suits to deter the Basin faithful.

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