Musings from Beyond the Boundary – 10 December

The first of the season’s major domestic trophies has been decided, with the Wellington Firebirds beating the Otago Volts in a drama-filled epic which thoroughly lived up to its Final billing.

I was fortunate enough to be at University Oval in Dunedin for the match and after the first ten overs it looked like a few of us might be rescheduling our return flights. The home team were 39 for 5 as Hamish Bennett and Ollie Newton delivered a potent opening spell against some nervy early batting. At the other end from the carnage, Neil Broom looked like he was playing in a different game, treating us to some sublime drives through the covers, but then with the total on 55 he edged a snorter from Iain McPeake to give Lauchie Johns his third catch of the morning.

Shortly after, Josh Finnie was run out without scoring and at 57/7 it seemed Otago’s fairy tale was coming to a rapid nightmarish conclusion.

However, Michael Rippon and Christi Viljoen had different ideas. Starting carefully against some tidy Wellington bowling, these two made a superb job of consolidating the innings and then gradually wresting control from the Firebirds attack. One wondered whether Firebirds captain Hamish Bennett erred in not bringing himself or Ollie Newton back into the attack as the partnership found its momentum, but that is not to take away from the excellent batting of Otago’s South African-born eighth wicket pair.

Rippon and Viljoen are not well-known names in New Zealand but they both have a wealth of experience. The 31 year-old Viljoen made his first class debut in 2010 and has played 75 first class matches and 84 List A games. 27 year-old Rippon played his initial first class match a year later and has turned out in a further 19 first class games amidst his 60 List A appearances. Both have also played international cricket, Viljoen for Namibia and Rippon for the Netherlands.

All that big match exposure paid off and what looked like a prospective walk-over had reached very competitive proportions when Rippon fell trying to push the pace having added 146 with Viljoen. A late flurry from skipper Jacob Duffy and Otago finished on 234/8. On paper it was a total the Firebirds would have been happy to take at the start of the day, but the Volts had recovered to put themselves in a position where they could at least compete, and possibly threaten.

The southerners would have been even more pleased in the third over when Duffy saw off the prolific Andrew Fletcher for just 4, ending his Ford Trophy run spree at a tally of 618. Fletcher, another South African-born player, had been the stand-out batsman of the competition. After four years in the wider Firebirds training squad, the patient Onslow opener was offered the team’s final contract this season. The first round of the Ford Trophy was his first List A match and he marked the occasion with a century against Canterbury. He followed that up with two more three-figure scores, against Otago and the Central Stags, and three other knocks in excess of fifty.

Michael Pollard and Devon Conway settled in and all appeared to be in order until the tenth over when Conway was bowled by Anaru Kitchen, who turned in a very tidy spell from the Pavilion end. Then 44/1 quickly became 75/5. Once more, it was Michael Rippon, this time with his intriguing left arm wrist-spinners, who delivered the telling blows. First he had Michael Bracewell caught behind and then he bowled Jimmy Neesham with a pearl of a delivery. In between times, Neil Boom’s direct hit put paid to Pollard’s cultured innings and suddenly the game had turned again.

Now it was the chance of another pairing from Southern Africa to work their side back into a position of strength. Johannesburg-born Malcolm Nofal and Zimbabwean-born Peter Younghusband added 118 in a partnership which steadily grew in confidence, the elegant Nofal playing the leading hand. But there was life in this game yet. Jacob Duffy returned to the bowling crease and had Younghusband lbw and then Nofal caught by Rippon, leaving the Firebirds 212/7 and still needing 23 to win.

In the end the young wicket-keeper batsman Lauchie Johns played a composed innings, well supported by Ollie Newton, and with eight balls to spare the Firebirds were deserving winners of an enthralling game of 50-over cricket. The Firebirds had been the most consistent side through the tournament and looked one of the best-balanced elevens in the competition. This was their first Ford Trophy title since the 2013/14 season – Michael Pollard was the only survivor of that win over Northern Districts who took the field in this year’s Final.
Otago’s last domestic One Day Final appearance was back in 2009, when they lost to Northern Districts. Their last win had been the season before when Brendon McCullum’s unbeaten 170 secured victory over Auckland. Remarkably Otago has won only one other One Day title, way back in 1987/88 when Stu McCullum, Brendon and Nathan’s father, was opening the batting. That season Bruce Edgar, this season’s Firebirds’ coach, was the competition’s top run-scorer.

This year, they were certainly worthy finalists, winning seven of their 10 round-robin matches and playing with a pride and determination that shone through not just on the day of Final. They will take heart from a quire remarkable turnaround after two seasons at the bottom of the table.

It was my first visit to the University Oval and it is an impressive facility with an attractive backdrop and wide grassy banks for the spectators. The Long Room at the top of the old stand offers a very appealing place to watch the cricket and its walls are lined with display cases marking the achievements of the province’s notable cricketers, male and female.

And speaking of Otago’s notable female cricketers, congratulations this week to Katey Martin who this weekend played her 155th match for the province, a new record for a New Zealand cricketer, male or female. She went past Chris Harris’s 154 appearances for Canterbury. It was great to see Martin and her Otago Sparks team-mates in the Long Room supporting the Volts, after they had beaten the Canterbury Magic in their own Hallyburton Johnstone Shield encounter.

Meanwhile, what a Test debut for Auckland Ace Will Somerville! Had Mitchell Santner and Todd Astle not been injured we almost certainly wouldn’t have seen either Somerville or Ajaz Patel in action in the UAE. As it was they each turned in match-winning debut performances to help New Zealand come from behind to win two test matches and a gripping test series against Pakistan. Let’s not forget Somerville’s calm and sensible batting in the first innings as well, when he supported BJ Watling in a critical 45-run partnership which pulled New Zealand back from the precipice at 209/7. He made Test cricket look like home.

Pity the selectors facing a tough choice when they put together their playing XI for the Basin Reserve this weekend.