Sunday, March 12, 2017

Serenity at the building site

Each province has five home games in the Plunket Shield. This season, Wellington’s first was played in spring when the Basin Reserve was a sub-branch of the Antarctic; the second was played 550 kms away; the third was cancelled because of earthquakes; this game is the fourth; the fifth is a day-nighter during the working week. So this match represented the best chance this season of enjoying domestic first-class cricket in the sun. I was there for most of the first day, and after lunch on the second and third days.

Readers in Britain should understand that domestic first-class cricket in New Zealand has long since ceased to be regarded as an attraction for the paying spectator. There is no charge, but neither are there any spectator services (though it is possible for members to buy food in their lounge), or even a public address announcer. The Basin is a public thoroughfare unless there is a match that requires payment at the gate, so there is a constant stream of pedestrians and cyclists passing between the spectators (not always in the plural) and the field of play.

A couple of years ago this fixture was played at Karori Park in Wellington’s western suburbs, sharing the field with two kids’ games and getting a smaller audience than either.

Pleasant as it was sitting in the sun at the Basin last week, I still thought wistfully of my day at the Nevill in Tunbridge Wells last July when 3,000 plus sweltered watching a game of first-class county cricket with all the panoply that comes with it: the marquees, the scorecard sellers, the food stalls. How one yearned now for the seductive chime of the ice cream van.

Add to this that the Basin’s main stand remains a building site. Our friends in the full body suits and breathing masks were back on the third day to remind us of the risk we were taking in watching the cricket. There are currently no seats in the stand and the members’ lounge reverberated to hammering and drilling.

All this would be inconsequential were it not for the fact that New Zealand are to play South Africa in a test match here starting only two weeks after the end of this game. It would be nice if there were seats in the stand for people to sit in. The official word is that the new seats are “on the way from China”. Insert the phrase “slow boat” into that sentence at will. The Museum Stand is full of sturdy wooden benches, but is shut, being an earthquake risk (yet the museum beneath it remains open).

Canterbury have become the first New Zealand team to adopt the practice (now established in the County Championship) of putting numbers and names on white shirts. The names are too small to read, there is no publicly available list of which number belongs to which player, and on the first day nine of 11 numbers were covered by sweaters, but the thought’s the thing.

Wellington were put in by Canterbury and made 291 in 91 overs, built around two century partnerships: 117 for the third wicket by Papps and Borthwick and 108 from Marshall and Blundell for the fifth.

Michael Papps is in fine form in his nineteenth season of first-class cricket. He moved to his half-century with three fours in one over off Andrew Ellis. Scott Borthwick was less fluent. He was in many pundits’ squads for England’s test tour of India after consistent high scoring for Durham for the past three years, but not that of the selectors. Instead he finds himself playing in the local leagues for Johnsonville, where the Taj Mahal and Gateway of India are merely alternative sources of takeaway dinners. What’s more, Borthwick was unable to secure a regular place in Wellington 20 and 50-over teams, carrying the drinks on several occasions. Here he toughed it out for 47, the sort of innings that can turn a player’s form around.

Hamish Marshall started slowly but was soon cutting like Vidal Sassoon and reached his fifty from 82 balls. Aside from the two century partnerships, Wellington’s highest score was Jeetan Patel’s 14.

Before the game began, Patel was called up to the national ODI squad for the final two games of the South African series, so would play for the first two days here before being substituted by someone who can also bat and bowl. This, I don’t approve of. It’s different from having a player called up unexpectedly halfway through a game. One of the defining features of cricket is starting with a set of resources that cannot be varied.

Matt Henry, five for 62 from 26 overs, was Canterbury’s best bowler. It is hard to recall Henry bowling badly for New Zealand, and he is No 10 on the ICC ODI bowling rankings, but he is not in the national team for any form of the game currently. Here he bowled with pace and penetration, the rain breaks helping to keep him fresh.

On the second day I arrived just after lunch to find Canterbury 60 for two. Peter Fulton was in and looking good. A couple of weeks previously he had destroyed Wellington with magnificent century in the 20-over final of the 50-over competition. Here, he looked as if his form had been carried over. Unusually, it is Fulton’s onside shots that are all timing and those on the offside that rely on power. He was out for 79, poking at a ball well outside off, a tame way for one in such good touch to get out. Henry Nicholls went in similar fashion, suggesting that this was not a pitch that took kindly to being driven on. Anurag Verma’s skiddy fast-medium was responsible for both dismissals.

Jeetan Patel bowled a long spell, offering value before heading for the airport at the end of the day. For the greater part he bowled with no fielders on the boundary, something that you usually see only when a side is on all-out attack. Mid on and mid wicket were both two-thirds of the way back, an invitation to batsmen to have a go. Yet when Todd Astle accepted the offer it took only a couple of successful tonks to send the fielder back to long on. He stared, Patel (or maybe captain Papps) blinked.

Hamish Bennett bowled (another) hostile spell. He has Astle lbw and thought that he had Fletcher caught behind, but the umpire demurred. As well as being a quality bowler, Bennett is one of New Zealand’s finest appealers, fit to be measured against Robin Jackman of Surrey, always the gold standard of appealers.

Arnel, the grumpy grandad of the Wellington attack, was the meanest of the bowlers, not helped by the frustrated air kick that he aimed at the ball at the end of one over making unintended connection, giving the batsman a bonus overkick. He took just one wicket, as did Patel (27 overs) and Woodcock (three overs).

Wicketkeeper Cam Fletcher shepherded the tail to a total of 243, displaying the gnomic qualities of his distinguished Essex namesake, but a deficit of 54 seemed significant on a pitch that was (to borrow Scyld Berry’s description of a Caribbean pitch the other day) grudging.

Arriving at lunch on the third day, I discovered that Wellington’s second innings progress had been sedate, and continued to be so throughout the afternoon, 248 runs the day’s harvest. It was far from disagreeable, sitting in the sun enjoying a rare pleasant day in Wellington’s Bermuda Triangle of a summer, untroubled by events that might have obliged me to make a note for the later benefit of readers.

Hamish Marshall provided a shot of adrenaline, but of the batsmen who reached double figures, only Borthwick broke the three-an-over sound barrier, that only by a smidgen. So we snoozed happily in the sun, the pitch appearing to join us. Such boundaries as there were came square or backward of square. Wellington’s lead was over 300 by the end of the day, and stretched to 324 on the final morning.

Everything that I had seen over the first three days suggested that 324 at three-and-a-half an over would be too much for Canterbury, and that a serious attempt at a run chase would let Wellington in.

Canterbury won by seven wickets, their 325 made at four-and-a-half an over. Fulton, who might have been expected to lead the charge, was the slowest scorer. Chad Bowes, who had impressed in the T20 at the Basin earlier in the season, made 149 when he was third (and last) out with the score at 236, leaving Henry Nicholls and Cole McConchie to take them home.

I wasn’t there, so don’t know how they managed it, but Patel’s control was obviously missed, his replacement Peter Younghusband bowling eight overs at almost six an over. It is unlikely that the character of the pitch changed much, so it must have come down to attitude and a lot of skill.

It is the huge capacity of first-class cricket to surprise that is one of its chief attractions, no matter if there are calm spells along the way. Let’s hope that next year the weather and schedule makes it possible to enjoy a bit more of it.

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