Monday, October 23, 2017

A new season: Wellington v Auckland

Wellington v Auckland, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 23 October 2017 (day 1 of 4)

If ever asked to provide advice to the young of today, I say only one thing: never arrive late at the cricket.

Those who failed to note this wisdom, and arrived 40 minutes or so after the first ball of the New Zealand season was bowled at the Basin today, missed a treat. Ollie Newton, opening the bowling on first-class debut, began with a triple-wicket maiden and a little later the scoreboard read 12 for seven. That’s the thing about cricket: you can watch it for half a century and it still shows you things you haven’t seen before.

Newton took the new ball for the second over of the day, from the southern end. He has had a long wait for this moment. He is 29, and has been on the fringes for a while, but one T20 appearance almost two years ago was his only previous experience in the first team. Why it was decided to give him a go now, and with the new ball at that, I don’t know, but it was a decision of Brearleyesque foresight.

His first ball was a yorker that struck Michael Guptill-Bunce on the toe for a straightforward lbw decision. The second passed by the outside edge. The third, Robert O’Donnell decided to leave, but too late. He was bowled off the inside edge. The fourth was edged to fourth slip as Michael Barry played defensively off the back foot. The hattrick ball was another yorker, kept out—just—by Mark Chapman.

At the other end, Hamish Bennett had Jeet Ravel dropped at first slip by Jeetan Patel, but joined in the fun soon enough with three wickets across two overs. Another from Newton and there we were: 12 for seven. 

Tight bowling and vigilant fielding prevented further scoring for a couple more overs, so keeping alive the hope that Auckland would join Oxford University (v MCC and Ground in 1877) and Northamptonshire (v Gloucestershire in 1907) in being all out for 12 in a first-class match. This was not down to any ill will towards our friends in the north; simply that it would be a thing which any cricket buff would count as an achievement in spectating. A crisp off drive from Matt McEwan settled the matter. 

There were five ducks among the top seven, but as is often the case with dramatic top order collapses, the lower decks achieved what their betters could not and the last three wickets scraped together fifty with the tenth wicket stand of 23 between Nethula and Ferguson the biggest of the innings.
Newton finished with four for 26, but Bennett’s figures were the most remarkable: 5-4-2-3. Logan van Beek and Iain McPeake (are there other rhyming pairs of bowlers?) also took wickets in their first over, in the former’s case on Wellington debut having moved from Canterbury.

At this stage, fingers of blame were being pointed at the Basin Reserve pitch, which has a record as long as your arm of being over-helpful to bowlers on the first morning. But on this occasion, it was innocent. It was green, certainly. There was movement too, but nothing that was uncalled for on the first morning of a four-day game. Few of the Auckland batsmen could blame the pitch with any degree of justification. Raval played round a straight one, and there were several rash shots. 

The counsel for the defence of the Basin pitch could also call upon the close-of-play scoreboard to offer powerful evidence: Wellington 246 for no wicket. No pitch changes its character that quickly. 

The key was the quality of the bowling. The home bowlers were pinpoint accurate, challenging the batsmen throughout and forcing errors and misjudgement. On the other hand, if bowling were taxable, Auckland could claim a full refund on the grounds that theirs took the form of a charitable donation. 

Lockie Ferguson bowled one really good over to Luke Woodcock, troubling him with a series of short deliveries that he was fortunate to survive. But the score was 190 for none at that point and for the rest of the day Ferguson was fast but wayward.

Leg spinner Tarun Nethula had a poor day, which his figures (0 for 45 in 19 overs) do not reflect. At the start of one spell he bowled two wides, one to off and one to leg. For much of the last session he was bowling wide as a defensive measure. He also bowled four no-balls, puzzling given that his approach to the crease is a nine-step stroll.

Seamer Matt McEwan bowled without luck, though not to the extent of Dreyfusian injustice suggested by his loud and lengthy appeals and general demeanour, which was that of a mugging lead actor in a Victorian melodrama.

Michael Papps dominated the innings, unbeaten on 163. He was the epitome of judicious aggression. There was a lot of loose stuff to hit, but he did so in mid-season form. As usual, he was particularly unforgiving square of the wicket. Luke Woodcock’s 64 from 209 deliveries might appear mundane in comparison, but his resolution enabled Papps to plunder freely. Woodcock has a range and, to a greater extent than most players in domestic cricket, can play according to what the situation demands. Today, he equalled the record for appearances for one province, with 127 (shared for the moment with James Marshall).

It was as one-sided a day’s cricket, start to finish, as I can recall. The Basin was pleasant too, the RA Vance Stand offering protection from the north-wester and, as the beginning-of-season email to members boasted “we’re pretty sure it is an asbestos-free zone now”. Value for money there, to be sure.

The scoreboard was encased in scaffolding and plastic. Regular readers will be familiar with my theory that the Basin scoreboard is controlled by North Korea, spreading fake news to undermine the morale of the civilised cricketing world, so we should be worried about what is going on under there. The extraordinary scores of the day were conveyed on a replacement club-style board with players’ names large enough to be read clearly by spectators as many as three rows away. 

Altogether, a relishable start to the New Zealand season.

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