WELLINGTON FIREBIRDS v AUCKLAND ACES
EDEN PARK OUTER OVAL
Result: Wellington Firebirds won by three wickets, and will face the Otago Volts in the televised 2018/19 Ford Trophy Grand Final in Dunedin this Saturday
The Wellington Firebirds are off to the big dance in Dunedin.
The strong side from the capital got off to a brilliant start with the ball in today’s crunch Ford Trophy Elimination Final and it was only a sorely needed 115-run sixth-wicket stand between Graeme Beghin and Robbie O’Donnell that helped the Auckland Aces steady themselves to get up to something approaching a defendable total.
Beghin and O’Donnell had had to begin again for the hosts after the loss of Mark Chapman, which left the Aces reeling at 58 for five, the defending champs ultimately dismissed for 236 in the 48th over.
Ollie Newton (5-47), who took his second five-wicket bag of his career and for the season, did the early damage with the ball: the biggest of the four wickets in his initial, six-over spell being Colin Munro, who edged behind to the keeper to the Firebirds' collective delight.
Munro had taken just 16 runs from the opening attack, having had to play a watchful role early doors after Newton had already accounted for partners Ben Horne (off his first over), Sean Solia (in his next over) and then Craig Cachopa in his next.
It wasn’t what the Aces captain had been hoping for after having elected to bat on what appeared a benign deck at a warm and overcast Eden Park Outer Oval.
Wellington Firebirds skipper Hamish Bennett had responded to losing the toss by opening with a maiden, just a leg bye conceded off it, and, alongside Newton, proved difficult to score off across the innings.
Newton had conceded two wides in his opening over, but the nippy right-armer quickly settled, and had 1-4 before claiming Solia as well, as the first drop attempted to slash him away only to gift a straightforward edge to the keeper.
Cachopa strolled in at seven for two and played positively, taking consecutive boundaries off Newton before Munro finally punched a straight drive off Bennett to get his own first boundary in the scorebook as well.
But when Newton enticed the edge, the Firebirds leapt up in unison knowing they’d just got rid of one of the most dangerous strikers in the game, for next to no damage.
Newton’s first spell ended at 4-25, putting himself on course for his first List A five-for since his maiden effort against the Otago Volts in Round Six.
However, it was Jimmy Neesham’s turn next as he claimed the other big wicket, Mark Chapman caught behind off a mistimed pull shot, thanks to a good dive and take from Lauchie Johns down the leg side.
Johns was a busy man with his four catches, but the Firebirds’ chances of rolling the Aces quickly were quashed by Beghin and O’Donnell’s cautious rebuild, the pair calmly ticking over the singles and turning over the strike, reaching a 77-run stand by the 30-over mark.
Both were operating at under a run-a-ball with Beghin (a career-best 69 off 73) going on to post his half century off 61 deliveries before drinks.
O’Donnell (54 off 79) followed suit with a half century of his own, but a double strike for leggie Peter Younghusband threw a blanket back over the Aces at a crucial time in the innings.
Ronnie Hira came and went, giving Newton his five-for without otherwise troubling the scorers. Matt McEwan was left to belt what he could, and was left unbeaten on 33*, but the Aces committed the sin of being dismissed with overs in hand, and will have felt a few runs short of par, let alone comfortable.
Young Aces left-armer Ben Lister (above) soon had the locals' chins up, however, with two early wickets, including the prolific Andrew Fletcher edging behind to a good grab at the end of the first over.
Fletcher's fellow Firebirds opener Jakob Bhula went to an inside edge in the fifth to have the Firebirds off to a rocky reply of their own at 13 for two.
Devon Conway led the initial revival until pressure from Ronnie Hira had him caught and bowled on 42.
Lister struck again in the 38th when he came back to try and break the burgeoning stand between Neesham and Bracewell. The Aces were ecstatic at removing Bracewell, who was caught behind on 41: the man who had tonned up against them and so very nearly won the game in their last head-to-head here.
Neesham was on 33* at the time and helped the Firebirds reach 145 for four by the 30-over mark, shortly after which he posted his run-a-ball half century (including four boundaries, three sixes).
Neesham dominated the scoring as he quickly built a new partnership with Malcolm Nofal, reaching 71* by drinks in a 46-stand to which Nofal had only contributed six. The Firebirds now needed just a further 60 runs, at just over four an over.
Colin Munro came into the attack in the 34th over and helped keep the strike rate down before breaking the stand with Nofal's wicket, caught and bowled at 179 for five. Younghusband joined Neesham on 74* with 58 required.
However, Younghusband became the sixth man down just five balls later, trapped by Matt McEwan. The Firebirds still needed 57 runs off 67 balls at that moment with just four wickets in hand, and, after Neesham helped blast 13 runs off McEwan's next, Cachopa decided it was time to bring Lister back into the attack.
With a boundary off Hira, Neesham posted his superbly paced century off 94 balls, now with just 24 runs remaining for victory. But three balls later he lost his new partner, Lauchie Johns run out at 213 for seven.
Nervous moments in "Finals Footy" but Neesham would go on to post the winning runs with 11 balls to spare, unbeaten on 120* (including a dozen boundaries and five sixes) as the Firebirds ousted defending champions the Auckland Aces to book a date with the Otago Volts in Dunedin this Saturday.