Musings from Beyond the Boundary – 8 April

Musings from beyond the boundary – cricketing thoughts through the eyes of Trevor Auger, an Auckland Cricket Society and Supporters Club Member.

What an enthralling month of cricket to wrap up the 2017-18 season.

Over the last few weeks we’ve had two scintillating test matches which had us on the edge of our seats right to the final session, we’ve had three One Day Internationals between New Zealand and England deliver last over finishes, we’ve seen the White Ferns win two of their matches against the West Indies by just one run and we’ve gone into the last round of the Plunket Shield with two teams still tussling for supremacy.

The Christchurch encounter was a test match in every sense of the word and, thanks to the efforts of Latham, de Grandhomme and then most notably Sodhi and Wagner on the final evening, last Tuesday will go down in the annals as one of the great days of New Zealand cricket. As someone commented in response to Vic Marks’ article in ‘The Guardian’ about the final day’s play, “A heroic draw such as this one is the stuff of dreams and legend for cricket nuts but utterly incomprehensible for the less enlightened.”

At a time when test cricket is making headlines in other parts of the world for all the wrong reasons, how rewarding to see such a hard-fought, competitive series played in such a great spirit by both sides. We’ve seen the pictures of Ish Sodhi embracing Neil Wagner and Kane Williamson at the end of the match, but perhaps the most important was the picture of him with that fierce competitor Stuart Broad, arms around each other recognising each other’s contribution to an outstanding game of cricket.

As for Neil Wagner, again his indomitable spirit has lifted his performance beyond expectation and again he has delivered exactly what was needed for his team, just as he had on that last afternoon in Auckland. While he is now ranked amongst the world’s top ten test match bowlers, his part in this series goes well beyond the story that statistics can tell.

Let’s not forget England’s part in this pulsating series either. It’s less than three weeks ago that they were dismissed at Eden Park for 58, the second-lowest score by a touring team in a test in New Zealand (Zimbabwe were out for 51 at Napier in 2011/12). Their ability to fight back and present such an imposing challenge to New Zealand reinforces what a superb performance Boult and Southee put in through that first session in Auckland, and how well supported they were in the field.

One of the strengths of the Black Caps’ summer was the ability of players to step up when they were most needed, which speaks volumes both of the talent available to the selectors and of the spirit within the camp. However there won’t be too many of us at who last spring would have picked Colin de Grandhomme to be the season’s top test match run-scorer.

Throw in some useful wickets, some important spells at the bowling crease, versatility in the field and an increasingly measured approach to the circumstances of the game and his contribution to the team has been immense. There won’t be a supporter of Auckland Cricket who isn’t delighted with his success.

And while we’re talking about test cricket, hopefully these two last session thrillers have lent further weight to the argument against five day test matches!

The Plunket Shield was also decided this week and there will be few arguments with the unbeaten Central Stags finishing triumphant for the first time since 2012/13. Through the latter half of the competition they had been fighting a tooth and nail battle with Wellington, who had started the summer so strongly.

The Stags drew ahead in the penultimate round but it was all on again last week as they replied to Northern Districts’ disappointing first innings of 134 by being dismissed for just 99.

Meanwhile the Aces were taking on Wellington at the Outer Oval, and while the title was now beyond the home side they were anxious to avenge their big first round defeat by the team from the capital.

The Stags’ spirits would have been lifted as Wellington slumped to 116/9 in response to Auckland’s solid 304, although the Aces would have been disappointed not to have scored more after reaching 276/3. They would have been even more frustrated to concede a last wicket stand of 58 which eventually took Wellington to 174, in spite of Lockie Ferguson’s fifth five-wicket haul in just six Plunket Shield outings.

Back in Napier, Northern Districts batted far better in their second innings and ultimately set the Stags a fourth innings target of 519. That all quickly became irrelevant though, as Wellington succumbed a second time being dismissed for 173 and losing by 120 runs, with Aces debutant Louis Delport claiming 4/42. Whatever the result in Hawkes Bay, the Stags were guaranteed Shield-holders with a day to play.

As it happened they held out through the final day of the season and defended their proud unbeaten record – it was appropriate that their skipper Will Young was there when stumps were pulled, undefeated on 75. At the other end Dane Cleaver, on 87, had delivered his sixth half century in eight Shield appearances.

While the Stags only finished four points ahead of Wellington, and both teams had won six matches, the Firebirds had lost three of their other games, so Central Districts were deserved winners. They had been the most consistent team in the country across all formats, finishing as beaten finalists in both the Burger King Super Smash and the Ford Trophy before their four day triumph.

They had four batsmen, Greg Hay, Will Young, Jesse Ryder and Dane Cleaver, amongst the competition’s top ten run-scorers and in Ajaz Patel they had the Shield’s top wicket-taker for a remarkable third consecutive season. Blair Tickner’s 30 wickets also made the top ten bowlers list, and with significant performances from a number of other players – Bruce, Bracewell, Worker, Schmulian, Milne  and Rance  all spring to mind – this was a well-earned victory.

For the Aces, third place was probably a fair outcome. While they won only one fewer game than the winner and runner-up (and three more than each of the bottom three teams) they struggled to deliver the consistency they needed to challenge for the title.

Of players involved in more than one game, none of the batsmen averaged more than 33, while only Solia and Phillips managed better than thirty, while Phillips delivered the season’s only three figure score. In contrast, eight centuries were scored by Central Districts and eight of their regular players averaged over 35 with the bat.

With the ball, Lockie Ferguson was superlative, taking 33 wickets in 6 matches at 17.4. He was well-supported by Matt McEwan and Ben Lister, but again these three were the only bowlers to take more than 12 wickets while the Stags had five bowlers with more than 20 dismissals. Auckland also suffered at times from the absence of a front-line spinner.

Overall though, a good season for a young and relatively inexperienced Auckland side under two new captains – Ford Trophy winners, a near-miss on a Super Smash Final appearance and third place in the Plunket Shield. Throw in the Hearts’ efforts to capture the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield and Auckland hold both the men’s and women’s 50-over titles and they were solidly in the hunt in all the other competitions…

Now our attentions turn off-shore for the winter, and already the IPL is under way with Mitch McClenaghan’s Mumbai Indians going down by the narrowest of margins to the Chennai Super Kings in the first round.