Saturday, March 6, 2021

Summer days at the T20

The first-class season in New Zealand used to begin at Christmas, sometimes on Christmas Day itself, which must have been the cause of tense negotiations in households across the country. Now the tinsel and reindeer bring with them the start of the domestic T20. I watched the opener at the Basin Reserve on Christmas Eve on television, and was at the ground for the remaining four home rounds of the round robin, and for the finals. 

One of the problems with T20 is that it does not offer a whole day at the cricket. There is barely time to put away a third scotch egg before stumps are pulled and you’re back on the bus. New Zealand Cricket have put this right by staging the domestic T20 as double headers, with a women’s and men’s game together offering a full day’s play, or at least the overs equivalent of a Sunday League game. 

In those distant times they managed to get through 80 overs in well under five hours of playing time rather than the six-plus it now takes. The biggest reason for this is that captains find it as irresistible to pick at their fields as does an infant its nose, often preceded by a conference that starts with the agreement of the minutes to the last one. So what about—either as an imposition once the over-rate falls below a proscribed level, or as standard practice—saying that the field set at the start of an over stays in place for the whole over, unless a left-hander replaces a right-hander on strike (or vice versa)? A harsher variant might be that captains submit a standard field at the start of the game and have to revert to that if they don’t get on with it. 

Both Wellington teams started the competition as reigning champions. The men have gone from strength-to-strength, and this year lost only away to Canterbury during the ten-game preliminary stage. Wellington supporters are doing a reasonable impression of the meek on the day when the title deeds to the Earth finally drop through the letter box. The women have experienced a levelling-up in the standard of competition. Last year they were unbeaten; this, they finished only third in the group stage and hosted the final because TV wanted it on the same ground as the men’s rather than on merit. 

Sophie Devine missed the early games but was devastating when she returned, starting with 108 from 38 balls in a total of 131 in a ten-wicket win away to Otago, followed by 59 off 26 in Christchurch. Her first appearance at the Basin, in the return against Otago, she made 80 from 44 and put on 110 for the second wicket with Melie Kerr. 

A young boy of about nine years of age who, when asked by a TV reporter if Finn Allen (see later) should be in the Black Caps squad replied that he judged Allen “not better than Sophie Devine, but still pretty good”, the quote of the season so far. It reflected not only the growing profile of women’s cricket here, but also how fortunate we are here in New Zealand, in these alarming times, to be so short of material to fill the news hour that we resort to seeking the opinions of primary schoolkids on the selection of national sports teams. 

Wellington’s women are the best fielding side in the competition, but when a Wellington player made a fielding error in a televised game, one of commentators said that the fielding was “not what you expect from a professional”. The excellent Frankie Mackay reminded him that there were only two professionals—Kerr and Devine—in the team. 

Mackay—also captain of Canterbury—is a prime example of a general truth that when a woman commentator comes to the microphone the average IQ in the commentary box increases significantly. This is never more true than on the Fox Sports coverage in Australia, which rarely rises above the level of tiresome banter other than when Isa Guha is there to guide and coax the boys into saying something intelligent about the cricket. Mackay is a librarian. When asked how many books she had read in 2020 she replied that it had been a busy year, so the total was a below-average 70. The incredulous response of her co-commentator suggested that he didn’t know that there were that many books in the world.

The aforementioned Finn Allen moved to Wellington from Auckland last year. In the early-season Plunket Shield games he could hardly put bat to ball and was dropped for the final match of the opening half of the programme. Restored for the shorter forms, he scored more runs than anybody else in the T20 competition (512), at the third-highest strike rate, with most fours and sixes. If he gets beyond single figures his innings explodes like a violation of the Test Ban Treaty. He combines timing and power in a way that is often spectacular. Alex Hales or Jason Roy might be playalikes in England. 

Against Central Districts, chasing 164, he reached his fifty in just 16 balls. This was the quickest half century I had seen since Matthew Fleming got one from the same number in a Sunday League game reduced by rain to ten overs for Kent against Yorkshire at Canterbury in 1996. Hearing that the game was soon to start, I hurried to the ground with my son, then aged eight. He was impressed. A couple of weeks later, we watched on TV as Sachin Tendulkar made an elegant century in a test match. He reached fifty in a little over a run-a-ball. “That’s four times slower than Matthew Fleming” said the boy, lifting the bar too high in a trice for any of the game’s subsequent great players to clear.

The second-highest T20 aggregate was Devon Conway’s, and his opening partnership with Allen goes much of the way towards accounting for Wellington’s success. One uses the power of a jack hammer, the other the finesse of the dentist’s drill. Conway has already been successful in the national T20 team, and would have walked straight into the test team in any other era. Expect to see him there in England in June.

The only loss that Wellington experienced in the home preliminaries was that of the women to Canterbury, thanks to the batting of Amy Satterthwaite, whose unbeaten 71 took the South Islanders to a nine-wicket win. Satterthwaite is Devine’s only contender as New Zealand’s best woman batter. The comparison is like that between the power and forcefulness of Graham Gooch and the elegance and security of Graham Thorpe. Like Thorpe, Satterthwaite is a left-hander, a rare thing among women cricketers here. Why this should be, and why there are more left-handers in the men’s game than there used to be, is a puzzle. Something to do with how they are coached when very young, perhaps. 

So to the finals, with Canterbury the visitors for both games. The women’s match was very entertaining. Three times, Wellington looked well on the way to victory, only for the game to turn on them. The first was when they were 100 for one, with Devine still there, slightly subdued but ready to press on the pedal for the final six overs of the innings until she was bowled by Melissa Banks, the first of seven wickets to fall for just 25 runs.

Satterthwaite’s loopy off spin accounted for three of the wickets, with three more falling to run outs, the best of which was a direct hit by eagle-eye Mackay. But that was the sum of Satterthwaite’s contribution; she was second out, for a duck. Melie Kerr’s hattrick, as previously reported, then reduced Canterbury to 40 for five, which became 60 for six with seven-and-a-half overs left.

Lea Tahuhu joined Kate Ebrahim. From that point, only four deliveries were not scored from. The shot selection of both players was exceptional, Ebrahim working the ball around while Tahuhu supplied the power, with two sixes off Jess Kerr in the 17th over. Six came from the next over, so 19 were needed from the last two. 

Only singles from the first three balls of the 19th, bowled by Devine. Wellington were back ahead, decisively we thought. But Ebrahim hit the next two deliveries to the boundary, one flicked to mid-wicket, the other lifted to the vacant third man. Ebrahim should have been run out off the last ball of that over, but Devine missed the stumps from four metres away. The Wellington fielding got a bit shaky as the game got more tense. Still, nine were needed from the last, bowled by Kasperek. 

Tahuhu charged the second ball of the over, sending it back over the bowler’s head to the straight boundary. Two more singles and the game was Canterbury’s, with two balls to spare. The rest of the Canterbury team rushed onto the field, first encircling Ebrahim. Satterthwaite broke away and rushed to Tahuhu, to whom she is married and with whom she had reversed roles today, batsman and bowler. Their embrace was as emotional a thing as I have seen on a cricket field for some time, sharpened by the appearance soon after of their one-year-old daughter. 

The men’s game was every bit as tense without quite as many giddy twists and turns. Canterbury batted first and for the first half of their innings made it look easy. At 106 for two in the twelfth, 200 looked probable. 

Wellington’s spinners, Bracewell and Younghusband (though slow bowler would be a truer representation of the former’s oeuvre), intervened decisively, gouging out Canterbury’s middle order and damming the flow of runs. Some end-of-innings biffing by Shipley took Canterbury to 175, fewer than they should have got, but still a challenge. There was some exceptional catching by Wellington. 

If Allen got going, it would be a cinch, but the tension of the final knocked his timing off, and he went for 16 off (by his standards) a dawdling ten deliveries. When Blundell was caught first ball by the diving Bowes at backward point, the tide of pessimism, never far from these shores, seemed about to engulf the local faithful. 

Devon Conway is one of those rare batsmen who goes about his job in the same way in all forms of cricket. The speed of scoring quickens to fit the format, but the foundation of judgement, temperament and, above all, technique is what his game is built on no matter what the context. 

As usual, it would have taken a while for the observer to discern what form of cricket was being played if the only evidence available to them was Conway’s batting. No chance of making runs was spurned and his risks were calculated, apparently to several decimal places. He paced his innings superbly, though he knew this better than most supporters when 29 were required from the last three overs, 15 from the final nine balls. 

Successive fours off the next two deliveries were executed as if they had been in Conway's diary for months. Another, his eleventh (just the one six today, more evidence of Conway's actuarial approach to batting) completed a five-wicket win with two balls to spare.

The Basin was fairly full for both finals, and, like last year, it was the family occasion that T20 competitions are said to enable, but, in some parts of the world, rarely do. T20’s limitations are well-known, but it can still provide a good day at the cricket, as it did here at a time when going to any cricket is a privilege.


Men’s final scorecard


Women’s final scorecard

 

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