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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.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Capitulation at the Cake Tin: New Zealand v South Africa ODI

New Zealandv South Africa, ODI, The Cake Tin, 25 February 2017
The set up was as teasing as a Victorian melodrama. Two games, two last-over wins, one to each side. The dramatic tension was maintained throughout the first act, the audience divided as to which way the plot would go. But after the interval we went straight to the final scene, the one where the stage is filled with New Zealand corpses. South Africa won by 159 runs, the most lopsided match I have seen since Southee and McCullum filleted England in the World Cup two years ago.

South Africa won the toss and batted. Their openers were Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock. I first saw Amla as a CricInfo reporter when I covered some of South Africa Under 19s’ tour of New Zealand in 2001. His talent was as abundant as his fielding was inept. Today he went cheaply, caught at mid off from a leading edge having contributed just seven of an opening partnership of 41.

New Zealand fed de Kock’s strength by bowling him lots of short stuff. This isn’t as daft as it sounds, the theory being that the batsman will take more risks within his comfort zone. It didn’t work today though. De Kock made 68 at almost a run a ball. He put on 73 with Faf du Plessis before both went to soft dismissals in the 23rd over, bowled by Colin de Grandhomme—the South Africans didn’t have a monopoly on the nobiliary particle today.

AB de Villiers was in at No 4 for his last game in Wellington (he’s not hanging around for the tests). I didn’t see the half century he made in the Basin test last time South Africa were here, and the empty 99 in the World Cup against UAE doesn’t count, so I was keen that one of the greats should leave behind a memory.

The regular loss of partners meant that de Villiers did not show us the full range of his inventiveness until the final few overs. He gets lower in the shot than anyone I can think of, which means that the bowler has to be precise to several decimal places in his pitching of the ball. An inch or too full and it might as well be a knee-high full toss; the same the other way becomes the easiest of half volleys. He made 85 from 80 balls and it was a treat.

The way the South Africans went about things from early in their innings suggested that they thought that a total of around 300 was going to be needed on a pitch that shimmered in the afternoon sun, so restricting them to 271 could be considered a good effort by the New Zealand attack.

Trent Boult was outstanding, every bit the leading one-day bowler in the world, conceding only 22 from his first seven overs. Tim Southee was more profligate. Mitch Santner was also very good with a mid-innings spell of seven overs going for just 28. Lockie Ferguson came in for Ish Sodhi, but did nothing to justify the selection. It is the nature of fast bowlers that they are hit and miss early in their careers as they learn that sheer speed is sometimes not enough. Today, the quicker he bowled, the quicker it came off the bat. He will have benefitted from studying the work of Kagiso Rabada later in the day.

But New Zealand’s best bowler, statistically at least, was the man least likely to be, Colin de Grandhomme, whose ambling medium pace accounted for du Plessis and de Kock. Having fought off a gang of muggers, they were felled by a handbag-wielding granny. He got de Kock with a long hop, but that was the worst ball he bowled. De Grandhomme made the best of a pitch that that was more balanced between bat and ball than most of us thought, bowling accurately and cannily. I am as enthusiastic about him as an ODI player as I am critical of his presence in the test team.

So how did Neesham, the all-rounder, do with the ball? Reader, we will never know, as he did not bowl. It appears that for Williamson, Neesham is a weapon of last resort, thrown in when all else has failed. He got away with it today, shuffling the five bowlers astutely (he didn’t put himself on either), but that is not a sustainable strategy for the one-day game.

Was 271 enough for South Africa? Most of us thought not, but as it turned out they could have gone to the pictures instead of facing the last 20 overs and still have won comfortably. I have often been critical of how the outcome of T20 games is too often obvious by an early stage of the second innings, but that can happen in 50-over cricket too, and so it did here.

Tom Latham would need the Hubble telescope to see his form at the moment. It should be David Attenborough rather than Ian Smith commentating when Latham bats, so closely do his innings resemble the pursuit of a limping gazelle by a pride of lionesses, the grizzly outcome inevitable. Today’s seven-ball duck left him with a series aggregate of two from 29 deliveries. There is almost always a penalty for giving the gloves to a specialist batsman. Latham’s keeping is satisfactory, though he did miss a straightforward stumping today. Let us hope that the test performance of New Zealand’s best opener since Mark Richardson is not the price to be paid.

Brownlie went caught behind off Rabada, so at 11 for two, Williamson and Taylor were together, usually as reassuring as a log fire in winter. Yet today it was as if they had something better to do and had sent a tribute band instead. They looked like Williamson and Taylor, but the music wasn’t the same. Both faced 40 balls, for 23 and 18 respectively, miserable strike rates by their standards. I often write that it was a surprise when Williamson got out, but today it wasn’t. Towards the end of their partnership both began to flail at the ball, so effective was the containment of the South African attack. Taylor was leg before soon after and seemed relieved, hurrying past Neil Broom at the other end so that there was no chance of being talked into a review. The rest was a procession, the last six wickets falling for 64.

As ever, there was talk about the pitch, on which 271 was a better score than at first appeared, and from which the South Africans got more help than New Zealand. But sometimes we look too closely at the pitch instead of the quality of the bowling. For various reasons the South Africans are missing Steyn, Morkel, Philander and Abbott, and chose not to play Morris, who has been taking wickets for fun so far on the tour. Yet the attack that took the field was superb.

The all-Kent opening team of Rabada and Parnell (two and five first-class appearances, seven years apart) was outstanding. The last time I saw Rabada he was attempting to coax some life out of the pitch at Tunbridge Wells, a task better suited to a spiritualist than a fast bowler. He is fast, accurate and—best of all—highly intelligent. Parnell was probing and accurate. In the first ten overs, between them they removed the openers and established the frustration of Williamson and Taylor.

The second wave was even better. Andile Phehlukwayo has something about him. He is not yet the finished article, but looks as if he absolutely belongs at the top level. He kept a cool head when bashing a couple of sixes to win the first game of the series. Today, he removed Williamson and Broom and conceded only 12 in his five-over spell. At the other end, Dwaine Pretorious was even meaner with two for five from five. Between them they put the match beyond New Zealand.

The home team came back strongly in the fourth game, winning by seven wickets with five overs to spare, thanks to a sublime unbeaten 180 by Martin Guptill. However at Eden Park in the series decider, another outstanding bowling performance gave South Africa a three-two series victory.

 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Kent in the Caribbean 1973


Kent have been in the Caribbean, playing in the domestic 50-over competition. This is an excellent initiative that shows that Kent are still taking the 50-over game seriously, though it is open to question whether cricket in 30-degree Antigua in February will prove effective preparation for six degrees in Swansea in May (the 50-over game has been consigned to an early-season ghetto from 2017, in preparation for it becoming a competition for players who can’t get a shiny city T20 contract in 2020).

Overseas participation in domestic competitions is not a new idea. The Netherlands played in the English knock-out tournament for ten years from 1996, and Middlesex were entrapped in the vulgarity of the Stanford extravaganza in 2008.

For six years from 1969 to 1975, New Zealand competed in Australia’s one-day knockout competition. One Bradmanless visit to the Basin in 1946 apart, Australia did not lower themselves to meet New Zealand in a test match until 1973/4, but offered a place at the servants’ table by way of consolation. New Zealand won in three of the six years, all games being played on the west side of the Tasman. Wisden reports that, after trouncing Western Australia (76 all out) in the 1975 final, New Zealand “informed Australia that they do not wish to continue playing in the competition under the present conditions”.

The notion of national teams playing in other countries’ domestic competitions retains value. Bangladesh performed promisingly for part of most matches they played on their recent tour of New Zealand, only for lack of experience outside south Asia to undo them. How much more valuable would it be if most of the squad plus some players just below international level were to stay on in New Zealand to play all six provincial teams in four-day games? The host teams could earn Plunket Shield points so as to make sure that they took the games seriously. What about giving Afghanistan or a West Indies A team a season in the County Championship? But talk of “growing the game” seems to boil down to little more than giving club-grade cricket international status without doing much to improve the standard of the play.
Many supporters will not know that Kent have toured the Caribbean before. They were there in early 1973, part of the prize for winning the 1972 Sunday League, but the details are elusive. CricInfo has nothing and even Cricket Archive, usually a reliable source of the most obscure fixture—see here for Odessa v Galatz, the highlight of the 1881 season in Imperial Russia, for example—offers nothing. The 1973 Kent Annual offers the slimmest of summarised scores with no description, a strange omission for such a ground-breaking event, though it does reveal that it was Kent’s second overseas venture in a few months, two games having been played in Holland the previous September. For the fullest account we turn to the 1974 Wisden, which has more detailed potted scores and a four-paragraph report.

We learn that it was an intensive programme, with 11 games at nine venues in two weeks. The results give a clear indication of relative strength of English and West Indian domestic cricket at that time. Kent won all four games against sub-first-class opposition, but lost all seven against first-class islands and provinces.

The games were played to Sunday League rules: 40 overs a side and restricted run ups for the bowlers, but no fielding limits yet. With so many West Indians in county cricket in the early seventies, unfamiliarity with the format was not an issue for the home teams. Some of the Caribbean’s finest appeared for the opposition: for Guyana, Lloyd, Fredericks and Kallicharran, and for Antigua 19-year-old VA (sic) Richards top-scored with 63.

There were individual successes for Kent players. Both of Kent’s West Indians, John Shepherd and Bernard Julien, had good tours. The best individual score was 82 against Antigua by Mike Brearley.

Yes, that’s right. Mike Brearley.

With Denness, Knott, Underwood and Asif Iqbal all involved in tests in south Asia, three guest players were drafted in. As well as the Middlesex captain, Keith Boyce of Essex and Barry Dudleston of Leicestershire were added to the party, joining a distinguished collection of players who had short careers with Kent. These days, it is commonplace. Steve Waugh, Muttiah Muralitharan and Kagiso Rabada among others have all briefly saddled up the white horse in the last couple of decades. But it has been happening for a lot longer. One of my favourite obscure facts is that before Aravindra da Silva’s brilliant one-season Kent career in 1995, the highest career batting average in Kent history was that of WG Grace, on the back of two half centuries in a single guest appearance for Kent v England in the Canterbury Week of 1877.

Boyce was almost a regular Kent player. When he and John Shepherd were identified by Trevor Bailey and Les Ames on a tour of Barbados as potential county players, Bailey had first choice and went for Boyce, who consequently became as successful and as much of a favourite with Essex crowds as Shepherd was for Kent.

I have recorded before in these columns that Barry Dudleston once wasted two traumatic hours as My Life in Cricket Scorecards’ personal ski instructor. Barry once produced a team photograph from that 1973 tour to test whether the extent of my cricket knowledge was as tragic as he suspected. His fears were confirmed by my identification of Richard Elms and David Laycock, a feat otherwise achieved only by close family members of those two players.

Barry would be surprised to read in the Wisden report that “Johnson and Dudleston were pressed into service with off spin and “Chinamen” respectively”. Unless there was some sort of close-season experimentation going on, Barry was a purveyor of orthodox slow left-arm, and proud of it. As previously reported, he was once heard to say “Fred Titmus took more than 2,000 wickets, but how many of those can he remember? I took 47 and I can talk you through every one.” The suggestion that Graham Johnson was merely an occasional spinner is also harsh.

The Wisden reporter was Michael Carey, on the tour as press officer, possibly on the strength of standing in for Frank Bough as Sunday League presenter on BBC2 during the Munich Olympics. Carey later became cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and joined the Test Match Special team overseas on several occasions. It was a shame that he wasn’t used at home as he was a talented broadcaster with a pleasantly soft Derbyshire accent and a dry and ready wit.  

The “whistle-stop nature of the tour” to which Carey refers in his report may be, at least partially, a euphemism for the hectic socialising that was bound to be part of any visit to the Caribbean. During one of these sessions Carey disclosed to Dudleston that whenever he had been assigned to a Leicestershire game, Barry had been out very cheaply. This became something of a standing joke, one that played out the following season when Norman Graham prepared to bowl the first over of the match to Dudleston. After he had marked out his run up, Graham pointed to the press box and shouted down the pitch “Look, Carey’s here”. Dudleston didn’t survive the over.

Kent 2017 did better than their predecessors, winning one match and losing the other against each of their three group opponents, the Windward Islands, the Leeward Islands and West Indies Under-19s, respectable, but not quite enough to qualify for the semi-finals.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Peak McPeake at the Basin



Watching one-day cricket these days is akin to following the later career of Frank Sinatra. You think he’s done, but he makes another comeback and you are grateful for it, but the pleasure is tempered; you know that he will die one day soon.

In England the 50-over competition is to become an early-season event, best sponsored by a manufacturer of thermal foundation garments. And this is just a holding position before it becomes a means of occupying players who not good—or rather marketable—enough to get a city T20 contract.

Here in New Zealand we have our own ingenious methods of counter-marketing, the art of putting people off going to the cricket. The main stand at the Basin is currently out of commission, so there is no chance a seat behind the arm. The members’ lounge is open, but gaining admission to it has been a challenge worthy of one of those eighties game shows like The Krypton Factor or The Crystal Maze, such were the number of fences and locked doors placed in the path of the member thirsting for their complementary coffee.

On Wednesday for the Central Districts game, an added disincentive was the presence on the upper deck of three sinister figures clad in orange full-body suits complete with breathing masks. The sign reading “Danger asbestos removal in progress” was short on reassurance on a day when Wellington’s gale-force winds were in full voice.

Today, another refinement in spectator deterrence: the sign outside the ground advertising the fixture said that it was playing played on Sunday rather than Saturday, as was actually the case.

But the biggest weapon in spectator counter-insurgence is, of course, the Wellington weather. When the fixtures for this season were published, I looked forward to seeing all four of Wellington’s home games in this competition. How touchingly na├»ve. We all know that summer’s lease hath all too short a date, but even so, in Wellington it needs to get a decent lawyer to look at the small print.

The first of these games, against Auckland, was scheduled for a day on which Wellington appeared to be staging a city-wide performance of The Tempest. My Khandallah correspondent, who has flown into Wellington hundreds of times, ranked her landing that afternoon as the second-worst ever, on the basis that the plane made its way down a considerable portion of the runway at a perilous angle with only one wheel in contact with the ground. Abandoned without a ball bowled.

The second, against Canterbury, began in mid-afternoon as a 27-over game, but the rain returned to leave the result in the hands of Messrs Duckworth and Lewis, who ruled in favour of the home team.

The third, against Central Districts, began in a gale strong enough to redistribute the markers for the 30-metre circle randomly around the field. The rain returned after 30 overs of the CD innings and that was that. Or was it rain? The Met Service data records rainfall of only 0.4 mm that day, possibly a record for the least amount ever to cause a game to be abandoned. Yet nobody disputed the decision to keep the players off the field, the evidence being there before our eyes. The thing is that to be measured, rain has to fall to earth. The moisture here was driven horizontally by the gale, condemned like the wandering albatross to spend most of its existence in flight. Either that or it was asbestos flakes.

Remarkably, this spell of cricket as played by Noah left Wellington top of the table, each curtailment or abandonment working in their favour. Clearly, Wellington’s mistake all these years has been to take the field when prosperity lay in staying in the changing sheds.

So it was wonderful just to sit in the sun at the Basin today, never mind the cricket. A win for Wellington would keep them at the top of the table with one more to play, while Otago needed a victory to maintain their interest in the competition. The visitors won the toss and elected to bat.

With Hamish Rutherford injured, Croudis and Rippon were an unfamiliar opening pair, both having made their Otago debuts only in the last couple of weeks. Rippon is the epitome of the modern cricketer: a South African who has represented the Netherlands, kolpaked for Sussex, and is now trying his luck on the South Island.

Wanting to know more about him, I looked Croudis up on CricInfo, only to discover that it doesn’t know where or when he was born, or even what his names are. The Otago Daily Times was better informed. Gregor Croudis is 23 and was preparing to start his first teaching job when called up by the province.

The pair made a slow start against the accuracy of Arnel and Bennett, who removed Rippon’s off stump in the eighth over with the score only 25. Bennett is bowling superbly at the moment, quite as well as when he was picked for New Zealand a few seasons ago.

Arnel tired in the last of his five-over spell and was twice driven to the cover boundary by Croudis, who also lifted Taylor over square leg for the first six of the game. At 72 for one in the fifteenth over Otago were well-placed but the entry of Jeetan Patel into the attack changed the game as it so often does on either side of the world.

The off spinner immediately trapped Croudon lbw, punishing the batsman’s temerity in coming down the pitch. In the coming weeks Croudon will often see the same expression of truculent disbelief that he displayed here on the faces of his new students.

Patel had Eathorne caught behind cutting in his next over, but it was Ian McPeake who took out the middle order, winning the game for Wellington in the process. McPeake was twelfth man for the early games in the 50-over competition, until an injury to Anurag Verma gave him a chance.

Today, we experienced peak McPeake. Bowling his ten-over spell straight through, he accounted for numbers four to seven in the Otago order. Three were caught behind by Luke Ronchi, the other at second slip by Michael Papps. There was a touch of green and good bounce in the pitch but only as a reward for spot-on bowling, which is what McPeake produced, at a decent pace too. He finished with four for 33.

Luke Woodcock replaced Patel (two for 11 at that stage) at the southern end, which released the pressure a little, with the left-armer going for two fours in his second over. Hamish Marshall might have kept Patel going with the aim of bowling Otago out, but Woodcock removed de Boorder caught at mid-wicket from a half-hearted shot after the batsman came down the wicket, leaving Otago at 114 for eight.

Christi Viljoen—another lost Vortrekker—hit brightly for a few overs, but Arnel returned to have Smith leg before, and Viljoen was caught at deep mid-wicket to end the innings. Pollard misjudged the catch completely, but held on thanks to a last-second sprawl. Patel, exemplary as ever, finished with three for 23. The target was 154, with a bonus point available if it was achieved within 40 overs.

Even after all this time cricket produces surprises, something I have not seen before. Today it was a left-arm wrist spinner—Rippon—opening the bowling. I haven’t seen many of this genre bowl at all: Sobers possibly, Bernard Julien occasionally, Paul Adams inconsequentially. I saw the South African twice in tests, and checking the records it seems that I witnessed his final test spell, at Hamilton in 2004, all three overs of it, but that’s all. There must have been others, but I can’t think who offhand.

Rippon bowled one over for three runs but was then taken off. Given that it was such a noteworthy event it was a surprise that the official record still (at the time of writing) claims that Josh Finnie bowled that over. Finnie is an off spinner, so not easily confused with a left-arm bowler of any kind. Besides, the bowler had “Rippon” on the back of his shirt which I’d have thought would have been helpful.

Viljoen took the new ball from the northern end. He bowls with a front-on windmill action reminiscent of Max Walker or, for older readers, AL “Froggy” Thomson, whose brief international career included taking the first ODI wicket. Viljoen had Papps caught behind, flailing at a wide one in his second over.

Tom Blundell was the other opener. This time last week Blundell thought that he was first-choice keeper for the national one-day side; now he is second-choice for Wellington, having been supplanted by Latham and Ronchi (returning from injury) respectively. Here, with Hamish Marshall, he moved things along quickly, with five fours off seven balls at one point.

Rippon returned (or, as the scorers would have it, came on) but was a caricature of a wrist spinner, pitching the ball (if at all) anywhere but a length.

The introduction of 18-year-old Nathan Smith (right-arm medium fast) was more successful. He accounted for both Marshall and Blundell in his first over, the first lbw and the second caught at mid on. There was an element of variable bounce and pace about both dismissals.

Ronchi and Taylor chose the direct route to victory, with three sixes between them. They put on 52 for the fourth wicket, 21 short of victory when Pollard was bowled by another ball that kept very low. 200 would have been a challenging target with the pitch deflating by the minute. Ronchi and Woodcock both went before the end, leaving the margin of four wickets look closer than it was.

With only 26 overs needed, the bonus point was achieved, leaving Wellington two points clear at the top of the table with one round-robin game to play. The knock-out phase takes the form of 1 v 2 (winner hosts the final), 3 v 4 (loser out), then the loser of the first game v the winner of the second for the other final place. Wellington have to beat Canterbury in midweek, but thoughts turned to a semi-final at the Basin next weekend.

But the Stop Cricket at the Basin (SCAB) group is cleverer than we thought. There is a concert featuring some of New Zealand’s best-known artistes scheduled for the Basin on semi-final day. Presumably the local authorities regarded the possibility of Wellington gaining a top-three place as being too fanciful to take into consideration. There being no other venue available (and why would there be in a city of 400,000 people, the nation’s capital?), Wellington would take the game far enough away not to need the men in orange suits to deter the Basin faithful.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

An ambulance and a God at the Basin



The need to call in at work for the first time since Christmas to make sure that they remember who I am has delayed the appearance of this account of the final two days of a surprisingly good test match.

First, an apology to the pitch and its caregivers. In accounts of the first three days I wrote it off, making the mistake of assuming that it would behave as test pitches at the Basin have done over the decade or so that I have been watching there. It didn’t give any help to the spinners as a test pitch should ideally do on the fourth and fifth days, but it did not curl up and die either. It was wrong to say that the pitch was heading into extinction, the opposite if anything; it had found the secret of eternal life, retaining its pace (or at least bounce) right through the game. A test pitch on which the game is resolved within the last scheduled hour is almost by definition a good one.

I cannot recall seeing more players hit on the head than I saw in these two days, including Santner twice, Wagner three times and, most chillingly, Mushfiqur, who was taken straight from the pitch to hospital by an ambulance that was driven onto the field to collect him, another spectating first for me. Courtney Walsh, here as Bangladesh’s bowling coach, looked a little misty-eyed at the sight of all those batsmen going down like felled trees.

On day four Tom Latham and Henry Nicholls took their resumed fourth-wicket partnership to 142 before Nicholls turned a delivery from Shakib into the hands of Mehidi at leg slip. Usually a half-century would enhance a young player’s reputation, but I’m not sure that this was so here. Nicholls can dispatch the bad ball, but finds it difficult to rotate the strike against accurate bowling, especially early in the innings. He survived a DRS review for lbw only on an umpire’s call, and was dropped. Sometimes batsmen score runs against a lesser attack which means that the selectors are obliged to keep them in the team against stronger opposition that they may not be up to. I don’t know if Nicholls falls into this category, but the question remains open.

Nobody else is suggesting this, but I would give Martin Guptill a run in the middle order as long as his form is reasonable. As an opener has played 47 tests with three centuries at an average a snip under 30. He has Ramprakash syndrome, the symptoms of which are to look unbearably good in other forms and at other levels of the game, but not to be able to turn the quality into test-match runs. Take Guptill away from the new ball and those runs might flow.

If the jury is still out on Nicholls, it is close to a verdict on de Grandhomme, to the sound of gallows being hammered together. Bang! On four after 13 balls, he scythed a four to third man. Crash! The next ball cleared the seats at deep square leg. Woe! A mow at a wide ball outside off and he was caught behind next ball. This is not the work of a No 6 test batsman.

Meanwhile, Tom Latham cruised on, if anything more relaxed than on day three. A casual lift over long on off Shakib for the first six of the innings showed how well he was seeing the ball, though he was dropped on 138, a hard diving chance at second slip.

Just when he looked set for a double hundred Latham swept Shakib, but missed and was plumb lbw, barely waiting for the umpire’s decision. Since both Dempster and Mills scored centuries in the first Basin test in 1930 (both dismissed by Kent’s Frank Woolley, who took seven for 76 at the age of 42), only John Wright among New Zealand openers had scored a century before Latham, which shows what trouble the position has been for us in these parts over the years.

BJ Watling had reached 49 in his usual unobtrusive way when occasional off spinner Mahmudullah was thrown the ball, which he immediately propelled some way down the legside. Watling, seeing an easy path to fifty, hurled the bat at the ball, which was collected by Imrul Kayes, standing in with the gloves for Mushfiqur Rahman. Imrul became very excited, which everybody thought was because he had made a decent legside take (for once). However, the DRS revealed that Watling had got a pretty solid touch and that Imrul had taken a catch that would have been remarkable even if he had been looking at the ball, which he wasn’t.

Mahmudullah wasn’t done. Three balls later Southee missed a straight one to be lbw. It is to be hoped that the young off spinner Mehedi (35 wicketless overs for 111 at this point) is the contemplative sort who can find it within to rue the fickleness of cricket and move on.

Mitch Santner made a career-best 73, but, as with Nicholls, it was not convincing. Against tired bowlers he struggled against the short ball, something that will have been noted by Kagiso Rabada among others.

An innings from Wagner that was a mixture of percussion and concussion, and that was that. New Zealand reached 539, a deficit of 56. The radio commentators took the view that Williamson should have declared at least 50 runs earlier as the best way of achieving a result. Of course, events vindicated Williamson’s approach completely, but I thought at the time that Bryan Waddle & co were mistaken, as they seemed to believe that Bangladesh would want to push for a victory. But the fact that they went defensive quite early on in the New Zealand innings showed both that they were aware of their own limitations and that after two years without overseas tests, a draw would be as good as a win for them.

Bangladesh’s sterling performance with the bat, and perseverance with the ball had made people forget how inexperienced they are; I haven’t checked, but some of the team may not have played on the fifth day before, and any attack that bowls 148 overs in the first innings will be tired in the second. These factors, along with a couple of hefty side servings of misfortune, meant that New Zealand had the keys to the safe when the Bangladeshis began their second innings with 90 minutes to go on the fourth afternoon.

For the second time in the game, Southee’s attempt to throw down the stumps in the follow through hit the batsman, despite the fact that he was located some distance from the target. Imrul Kayes responded perfectly by depositing Southee in the cheap seats later in the over.

After an hour all was fine, Imrul and Tamim were going well and thought drifted to which book to bring on the last day. Suddenly, Tamim pushed one to point and called Imrul for a single, a tough ask for someone who had just finished 148 overs of unexpected wicketkeeping. Imrul hurled himself at the crease, making the run, but hurt his leg in the process. He left the field on a stretcher, the first time I can recall seeing this (the second occurred the next day). Basin stalwarts recall Syd Lawrence exiting in this manner when he split his kneecap in 1992.

The incident disturbed Bangladesh’s equilibrium: Tamim was bowled by Santner and Mahmudullah was caught behind off Wagner. Then in the last over of the day some comedy running combined with a direct hit by Santner to remove nightwatchman Mehedi.

With three (possibly effectively four) down and the lead 122 a New Zealand win was on the cards, not that you could have discerned this from the local cricketing public, who years of shredded hopes has left with a demeanour compared to which Eeyore is a cock-eyed optimist.

Shakib strode to the crease like a concert pianist who, having knocked out some Beethoven to critical acclaim one night feels able to deal to Tchaikovsky next evening without rehearsal or practice in the interim. He tried to get off the mark by belting Santner over mid on, only to be  caught there by Williamson.

Mominul Haque was caught in the gully, but then Mushfiqur (still suffering from the hand injury that had prevented him keeping wicket) and Sabbir steadied things. In doing so they focused on time rather than runs. They batted together for 15 overs (both were dropped once), but scored only 18 runs. If the scoreboard doesn’t move much that can cancel out the time side of the match-saving equation.

The ball that caused the entry of the ambulance was not that short; Mushfiqur ducked into it and it hit him on the back of the helmet. It was a worrying few moments with the Phil Hughes tragedy so fresh in our minds, but the medical reaction was precautionary as much as anything and Mishfiqur returned to the ground by the end of the day. It was, however, the breakthrough that New Zealand were starting to get a little restless for.

Taskin was dropped at short leg by Latham—New Zealand’s catching has been poor—but bowled next ball by Boult. At lunch Bangladesh were 193 ahead with three to come, including the hobbling Imrul.

After lunch we had one of those periods that I find more irritating than anything else about modern cricket, and which makes me channel my inner Fred Trueman. For Sabbir—a No 7 batsman in the 40s playing his first overseas test—the field was set right back to give away a single so that the attack could bowl at Kamrul. I can’t understand why, when you want just three wickets to effectively win the match, you give up trying to get one of the batsmen out.

Kamrul was out (without getting on strike with a gifted single), then Sabbir defeated the strategy with a plan of Baldrickian cunningness: with no slips he contrived to be caught at the wicket by flailing at a short one.

Imrul Kayes returned, and unbelievably the single-gifting strategy continued, even though Imrul was clearly incapable of running a single; the desired outcome of the plan would be achieved only if two fielders had picked Imrul up and carried him to the other end. Runners are not allowed. I miss runners for the anarchy they so often introduced to proceedings.

Some boundaries from Imrul and the innings was over, leaving a target of 217 from 51 overs.

Mehedi located fresh reserves of pessimism among the locals by removing both openers, the young spinner’s first overseas wickets and well-deserved. This brought Taylor and Williamson together, which had the soothing effect of a deep massage on the spectators. Entry was free so Wellingtonians converged on the Basin from all over the CBD. The ground was fuller at the end of the game than at any other time.

Taylor was at his quick-handed best, swiftly onto anything fractionally short and unsettling all the faster bowlers, playing on their inexperience. His 60 came in just 75 balls. The third-wicket partnership was worth 163 and took just 25 overs.

Williamson batted like a God. Time after time, what seemed like a push into a gap for a single sped to the boundary, so perfect was the timing. Three fours in three balls off Taskin just before tea were sublime. His fifty came up in 43 balls, his hundred in 89, one of the fastest ever seen in the fourth innings of a test.

Had New Zealand won by an innings in three days (as we expected) this game would have swiftly disappeared from the memory. Because New Zealand were outplayed by Bangladesh in the first innings, a narrower victory was more of an achievement, Williamson’s magnificence on the last afternoon finishing it off perfectly.

Bangladesh made us forget how inexperienced they are, or that this was their first away test in more than two years, which is a scandal. There has to be a plan for Bangladesh to have at least five home and five away tests a year. India, England and Australia all need to step up here. There is obvious talent and potential here and world cricket must not let it go to waste. What is the point of (I hate this term) growing the game when an existing test country is given so little support? All talk of Ireland (or anybody else) being given test status is hopeless unless a coherent programme of guaranteed fixtures for ten years can be worked out first.

It was a pleasure to be at the Basin for this test match. The pohutukawas were out, there were surprises, records, ambulances and some brilliant, spirited cricket played with modesty and good humour. A great start to the year.




Sunday, January 15, 2017

Latham's day at the Basin



To have astonishing days like yesterday there must be routine days against which to measure them. This is not to say that day three was mundane or boring—345 runs in a day can’t be that—just that it proceeded much as expected.

Bangladesh batted on for an hour so. They looked in no trouble at all, despite losing Taskin caught at slip and having Sabbir dropped at mid-on by Latham (in a way that sustains my crackpot theory that fielders lose the ball against the pohutukawa flowers at this time of year). The declaration came at 595 for eight, Bangladesh’s second-highest test score.

The Bangladesh pace attack is one of the least experienced in test history with one career wicket show between the three of them, so it was little surprise that off spinner Mehedi Hasan Miraz was handed the new ball, even though he is just 19 and playing in only his third test. Mehedi took 19 wickets in the recent two-match series against England who responded to the challenges he presented in the manner of an infant class trying to solve The Times crossword.

Of course, conditions at the Basin were very different to what he is used to, with plenty of bounce but no discernible turn. A Bangladeshi commenter on CricInfo looked forward to Mehedi making use of the pitch as it broke up, in which case he should check back around Easter.

Mehedi bowled 26 overs for 82 runs but no wickets, but he bowled very few “four” balls and did not allow batsmen to dominate. It was a commendable performance in the circumstances.

With Shakib not bowling much after his batting heroics, it was up to the fast-bowling novitiate to make the breakthrough. Jeet Raval was dropped at second slip off Subashis, but hung out his bat to the first ball bowled by Kamral Islam Rabbi (a name that encompasses cricket’s ability to heal divides).

This brought in Kane Williamson who batted with ease of a man at the peak of his profession. Any ball even marginally deficient in line of length was politely assisted between the fielders to the rope. A leg glance took him to a half-century at just under a run a ball. A batting master class seemed in prospect and there was foolish talk of a tilt at McCullum’s 302.

But the next ball from debutant Taskin Ahmed was the ball of the day, hitting a perfect upright seam and finding the edge as it moved away. It was his first test wicket, and taken with a ball that deserved to get a fine player.

Ross Taylor was next, and was in as good touch as Williamson. His footwork was would not have disgraced Darcey Bussell. On 40 he got a long hop from Kamrul and the crowd was collectively asking itself “four or six?”. Instead he drilled it straight to mid-wicket.

Meanwhile, Kent’s Tom Latham was working his way to his sixth test century in 27 tests, a decent ratio. He has quietly established himself as the junior member of the triumvirate that sustains New Zealand’s currently fragile batting. Particularly strong in the arc from third man to extra cover, his shot selection was faultless, and he is never hurried, never worried. Like Williamson and Taylor he has the skill, but what is more important, the temperament too.

As expected, the pace attack was unthreatening and brought to mind Trevor Bailey’s remark about the England attack of the late eighties, that the captain could change the bowler but not the bowling. All three of them are right-arm amiable pace, but they stuck at it along with Mehedi with occasional contributions from Shakib, and did not get taken apart. Indeed, the batting was at its most contained in the last hour of the day, which says something about their stamina and concentration.

At the end of the third day the course of the rest of the match looks as predictable as a Mills and Boon plot, but we can hope for an infusion of Agatha Christie and any poisoner would do well to start with the pitch.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

In the steps of Bradman



I have had my what-do-they-expect piece for the end of this test match written in my head for a few days. In summary, it goes: what do they expect if they don’t give Bangladesh an overseas tour for two years, if they only give them two tests in 2016, and if they put them into a test series with no first-class cricket in preparation. It was when the 300 partnership for Bangladesh’s fifth wicket came up that I finally decided to consign that piece to the trash folder of the mind.

Cricket is at its best when it surprises. Today was one of the most astonishing days I have seen; when the match began yesterday it was an outcome that could not have been conceived of. I bet that at no stage of the preparation did Bangladesh give any thought to what their declaration strategy would be if they were put in.

The day began with Bangladesh 154 for three; they ended it at 542 for seven. It was dominated by that fifth-wicket partnership of 359 between Shakab Al Hasan (217) and Mushfiqur Rahim (159).

A recycling plant could be built just to deal with the records shredded during the day. Highlights include the following:

·        Shakab’s 217 was the highest ever made by a Bangladeshi batsman

·        It was a record for any wicket for Bangladesh

·        It was a record for the fifth wicket for any test in New Zealand.

The partnership began with the early dismissal of Mahmudullah with the ball of the day, which Southee got the ball to spit and move to produce a caught behind. That was as much life as the pitch showed all day. It didn’t so much sleep as ease into extinction.

Shakib’s was the more adventurous innings, though this perception may be because when batting he uses his feet to stop him falling down and not much more. Batsmen with minimalist footwork tend to look as if they are flailing around a bit. Mushfiqur presented as the more restrained and orthodox of the two, yet it was him who hit the only six of the partnership and who attempted the only dilscoops. Both batsmen excelled at matching the shot to the delivery, though one sensed that this was more of a temperamental challenge to Shakib than Mushfiqur.

Shakib’s progress was more even; at one point Mushfiqur caught up with him but was fifty behind when the partnership ended. Like hair fashion Mushfiqur had a bad eighties, becoming as edgy as a Swedish detective drama. He became angstful in nineties, which he navigated as if a river full of crocodiles, not the tickled trout that the New Zealand attack now resembled.

The luck went with the two batsmen, but that was a fair reward for the relative quality of performance of the two teams. Shakib was missed four times, starting on the first evening on just four when Santner failed to see a ball coming straight at him at mid-wicket until it was too late. I’ll resurrect a pet theory from a couple of years ago: the flowers of the pohutukawas that grace the eastern side of the ground at this time of year are cricket-ball red, which makes it fearfully difficult to spot an actual ball as it emerges from the crimson foliage.

On 132 Watling at first appeared to have made good ground to have caught a gloved pull, only for the second replay to reveal that he spilled it on impact with the ground. On 172 he should have been run out but Santner failed to pick the ball up, then on 189 Taylor dropped a diving effort at backward point.

Well over half the partnership’s runs came behind square, which says a lot about the inconsistency of line of the New Zealand bowlers. Early in the day, Southee tried to throw down the stumps having collected a return hit from Shakib, only to hit batsman, who had retreated a metre wide of the stumps. The bowler’s plea that it was unintentional gained credibility as the day wore on and it became clear that it represented one of Southee’s better attempts to locate the stumps ball-in-hand.

Boult troubled Mushfiqur from round the wicket during one spell, but was otherwise uncharacteristically off song, but without the galeforce excuse of the first day. Wagner continued to bustle in without stint, and was again the most economical bowler, but as Richard Petrie said on the radio, if you bowl three balls an over short and wide it massages the statistics in this respect. Santner and de Grandhomme were both unthreatening. Jeetan Patel would have been a useful resource for Williamson here.

An off day for the New Zealand attack on a flat track, but that should not diminish the achievement; the partnership was made against an attack that included bowlers currently ranked at Nos 11, 12 and 13 in the rankings.

Shakib and Mushfiqur accelerated their way up the fifth-wicket partnership list until they were behind only Laxman/Dravid, Waugh S/Blewett and Barnes/Bradman, but when they had put on 359 Mushfiqur pushed tiredly and edged a catch to Watling. Shakib played on to Wagner a little later.

As he left the field the New Zealand players all shook his hand, some running a distance to do so. The applause was generous and sincere, and was acknowledged with humility. It made one be glad to be at the cricket.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

They call the wind Marais: NZ v Bangladesh day 1



As usual, bails flew on the first day of the Basin test, but this time it was not because of the usual St Patrick’s Day celebration of a pitch, but rather a Genghis Khan of a northwesterly that, among other detritus, swept Umpire Marais Erasmus’s hat from his head to the boundary and made the task of removing the covers akin to that of lowering the sails on an America’s Cup yacht.

As usual, pre-match reports suggested that the pitch was hiding in plain sight by being the same colour as the rest of the square, but when it was unveiled this morning it was less green than usual. Kane Williamson won the toss—an improvement on his predecessor’s somewhat sorry record in this area—and put Bangladesh in. It was the twenty-first time in a row that the winning captain has chosen to field in a test in New Zealand, but for once on the first morning at the Basin the ball did not seam like Coco Chanel.

Bangladesh have not played a test overseas for more than two years, and played only two at home in 2016, the recent drawn series against England. This may explain why Tamim Iqbal’s approach to opening the batting appeared not to take account of the fact that he was wearing white clothing. He was off the mark in the first over with a flash over the slips for four, and continued to attack at any opportunity, as well as running a series of short singles.

Another explanation is that Tamim had a season of T20 with Wellington four years ago, so knows that the best approach at the Basin is to get it done before your body shuts down from the cold.

Imrul Kayes tried a similarly aggressive approach to opening the innings but with less success, being caught at long leg by Boult off Southee for one, an unusual way for the first wicket of a test to fall.

Mominul Haque was more circumspect in his support of Tamim, who continued to attack, but with intelligence and judiciousness.  

Tamim survived a fielding side DRS review for lbw from de Grandhomme in the ninth over on an umpire’s call. Though it was close, that de Grandhomme was bowling round the wicket wide of the crease made a successful outcome unlikely. The bowler’s response next ball was a bouncer, which at his pace presented more of a threat to his own toes than the batsman.

Tamim’s aggression resulted in something that I have not seen the like of before. When Tamim pulled de Grandhomme to mid-wicket for four in the twelfth over he took Bangladesh to 52, of which his contribution was 49. Has one player ever made as many of a test team’s first fifty runs?

Tamim brought up his own half century next over, from 48 balls, but did not survive a second DRS review, which clarified that the ball had hit the pad just before it came into contact with the bat. He made 56 and was out with the score at 60.

Mahmudullah now joined Mominul Haque and either side of a lengthy weather break put on an attractive and well-judged 85 for the third wicket. Mominal was particularly strong through the off side.

The weather affected the home side more than the visitors. Being a northwesterly it blew across the pitch from wide mid on when the bowling was from the northern end. This made bowling with it more difficult than bowling into it; almost exactly double as many runs were made from the bowling at the northern end than at the southern. As fine a bowler as Trent Boult had his compass misaligned to the extent that his opening spell was terminated after just three overs, something that I cannot remember happening to him before.

Tim Southee was a model of precision into the wind (his first 16 balls were scoreless), but profligate with it (sort of) behind him.

Part of the reason for the parsimony of the southern end was that it was from here that Neil Wagner bowled. Of course he did; if ever a bowler was born to bowl into the wind it is Wagner, whose whole-hearted effort has made him a favourite of the locals. Today he conceded a run-and-a-half less than any of the other three bowlers. He was rewarded with a wicket from one of the worst balls he bowled, when Mahmudullah chased a wide one to be caught behind. But it often isn’t the ball that the batsman gets out to that takes the wicket; it’s all the other good ones that went before that do it.

Bangladesh finished the day on 154 for three from 40.2 overs. They were impressive and attractive in difficult conditions. So far on this tour they have been whitewashed in three ODIs and three T20s. In each game there was a point where they looked on top, but could never maintain the quality for a whole innings. That is their challenge tomorrow.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Wellington v Canterbury, T20 semi-final, Basin Reserve, 5 February 2017



Arriving at the Basin with the bank already filling I was taken back to seventies mornings when the smell of bacon frying on campfires in the car park meant that a big knockout game was on at St Lawrence.

Marketing hyperbole has undermined the language of sport. Rugby league in this part of the world is particularly keen to pretend that every game is a final. This match was billed as the preliminary final. But this was the game to decide who would play in the final, so a semi-final is what it really was.

With a bit of imagination and a little licence this one could have been sold as over-35s v under-35s. Wellington had five players in the former category, plus Woodcock who is only a couple of months short. Canterbury had only Peter Fulton.

Both sides have had their progress in the competition aided by being largely untroubled by the selectors. Only Luke Ronchi was missing on international duty from the Wellington team, and the selectors thoughtfully allowed Matt Henry to return to the Canterbury team following an indifferent performance in the T20 against Bangladesh in Napier the previous evening.

However, Canterbury had three other players who have been selected for New Zealand in one form or another this season—Henry Nicholls, Todd Astle and Kent’s Tom Latham—and looked the stronger team on paper.

Not that Latham had much influence on the game; he went early, lbw to a full toss that was quite the worst ball that Hamish Bennett bowled in his opening spell. That brought together Henry Nicholls and Chad Bowes for the best batting of the game, a second-wicket partnership of 69 in nine overs. Nicholls we know about, but I’d not heard of Bowes before. He’s a member of the white South African cricketing diaspora, captain of the Proteas under-19 team in 2012. Now he wants to play for New Zealand (which is, at least, preferable to wanting to play for Hampshire).

Bowes is a proper batsman whose 56 from 41 balls was full of intelligent orthodox shots. He hit eight fours, three of which were from successive deliveries from Brent Arnel, an interest-free advance from a payday loan shark. Nicholls also scored fours from three successive balls, off Luke Woodcock, though they were his only boundaries. He is a bat-through sort of batsman, which can be a euphemism for not having that top gear that is needed to flay a bowler in T20.

When Bowes was out in the 13th over, the score was 96 for two, so 180-plus was in prospect. But Jeetan Patel had already set about cutting off the blood supply. At last, Patel is getting the recognition as a master practitioner at home that he enjoys in England. When he came on the Canterbury innings was a roaring lion. When he finished, it was tamely eating from his hand.

Canterbury’s assistant coach Brendon Donkers was on the radio on the morning of the game saying that T20 was all about boundaries, there being a strong correlation between hitting the most boundaries and winning the game. He went as far as to say “forget about the singles”. A truism perhaps, and a petard to be hoisted by. Patel conceded only one four, a reverse sweep by Peter Fulton off the fourth ball of his fourth over.

Hamish Bennett was even more miserly, going for just 18 from his four overs with wickets from the last two balls of the innings. Canterbury’s total of 151 looked at least 15 short of a break-even score.

For many years Hamish Marshall was confused with his identical twin James. Now he has another doppelganger at the other end in Michael Papps. Both are short, old (in cricketing terms) and bat pugnaciously with a fusion of hard-hit conventional shots and new-fangled improvisation. Their fifty partnership for the first wicket came up from the first ball of the fifth over. Matt Henry took a particular pounding and may have wished that he had stayed in the Hawke’s Bay sun.

It seemed like a procession, but as has been related in these columns often enough, Wellington’s sports teams have a talent for escaping from match-winning situations that would spring them from Colditz. Here leg-spinner Todd Astle was the agent of change. He came on as soon as the fielding restrictions were relaxed and struck immediately taking a hard-hit return catch to get rid of Marshall.

We had a strong earthquake here in Wellington a couple of months ago that has led to the demolition of a couple of large buildings and design faults being exposed in others. Earthquake Astle revealed structural failings in the Wellington batting. The foundations were shaky and innings began to suffer from liquefaction. Papps was bowled by a perfect googly and 103 for one became 110 for five inside three overs.

Astle bowled his spell through, which supports my idea that sometimes captains meddle too much with the bowling roster in T20. Maybe he could have been risked during the powerplay.

With better support from the other end Astle would have won the game, but instead there was a curious effort from off-spinner Tim Johnston. I have been reading Jon Hotten’s The Meaning of Cricket, which contains accounts of the yips suffered by various bowlers, that describing the psychological implosion of Scott Boswell of Leicestershire in a one-day final at Lord’s being particularly harrowing:

“It took Scott Boswell a decade to rebuild his relationship with the game that had dominated his life.”

Perhaps because this was fresh in my mind, when Johnston failed to release the ball in the delivery stride a couple of times, I began to have my suspicions. He did so again, this time giving Papps a “Mankading” warning, which I thought might have been a cover story. Then came a slow beamer to Blundell. The resulting free hit went for six and ultimately made all the difference. Johnston was taken off after two overs, but surprisingly brought back later, when it was a choice between him and the out-of-touch Logan van Beek. The yips were not apparent this time, but a six by Taylor landed on the roof of the merchandising stall and a quicker delivery resulted in four byes.

The only bowler I have seen have a complete meltdown in this way was the great Australian quick Graham McKenzie, as unlikely a victim of the yips as could be imagined. It happened in a Sunday League game at Folkestone in 1971. McKenzie had bowled three overs with no hint that anything was awry, but in his fourth started to bowl front foot no-balls—called by his compatriot Bill Alley—and couldn’t stop, even when he reduced his run-up to three paces. Maybe the 15-yard restriction on run-ups that applied in the Sunday League at that time had an effect, but McKenzie’s was an economical approach to the crease that made it seem unlikely. The over was 14 deliveries long and went for 31, as many as I have seen come from one over. It was as strange a thing as I have witnessed as a spectator.

Two more wickets kept the collective blood pressure of Wellington supporters right up there, and the final over began with five needed and three wickets standing. Here I draw your attention to my comparison in my last post of Luke Woodcock to Darren Stevens in terms of reliability and reassurance. Two cover drives to the boundary off van Beek off the first two balls of the over and it was done.

Postscript:

The final took place just two days later, with Wellington travelling to Pukekura Park, New Plymouth to play Central Districts. I watched on TV. 4,000 were crammed into the most beautiful cricket ground I know of, spread out across one row of benches on each level of the grass ziggurats that tower over the ground on three sides.

Earlier this season a new world T20 record for a match aggregate was set on the ground, with CD falling one short of Otago’s 249. A runfest was expected, so when Wellington found themselves at eight for two, and later 114 for seven, hope had left the ground. An unbroken partnership of 58 by Taylor and Patel guided Wellington to the lower foothills of respectability, but a trouncing still appeared inevitable.

But by the end of the third over of the CD innings, Mahela Jayawardene and Jesse Ryder had both gone for ducks and the favourites never got going. Wellington won by 14 runs, a street in T20 terms.

I have enjoyed the later stages of the competition more than I thought I would because it has been less predictable than the shortest form can often be and there has been some good, thinking cricket. The fact that it is not presented in the overblown way that the Big Bash is also helps, particularly in the TV commentary which has been sensible and understated, as is the Kiwi way.

Next, the first of two test matches at the Basin this season, against Bangladesh.