Round nine, 21-24 March 2017 at Saxton Oval, Nelson
Jesse Ryder's 23rd first-class century ruined Canterbury's plans at Saxton Oval as an overnight declaration on a lifeless pitch spectacularly backfired.
To recap, all Canterbury needed to do to secure the Plunket Shield with a round to spare was win this match.
Instead, Ryder's century ensured the Central Stags chased down 347 for their first outright of the season, giving them lift-off from the bottom of the table.
Willing them on every step of the way until Adam Milne closed out the four-wicket win with a six were the defending champions the Auckland Aces and Northern Districts whose chances consequently remain very much alive heading into the last round of 2017.
Given that the Aces will face the Stags at McLean Park in that last round, the Stags may not be on their Christmas card just yet. Canterbury meanwhile will head back to Hagley Oval ruing a lost opportunity, their lead just eight points, and season back in the balance against the Firebirds next week.
Canterbury captain Andrew Ellis had declared overnight and his quest began well enough, Logan van Beek striking in his first over of the morning to have the Stags 1/1, Greg Hay losing his off stump.
But it didn't take long for the Stags to reveal their positive intent. Mitch Renwick & George Worker formed an attractive combination and quickly found the boundary, peeling five of them before the first change.
Ellis brought himself on in the eighth over but by drinks they'd chipped off the first 50 and, when Tim Johnston was introduced after the refreshments, Worker slaughtered him straight to the fence, too.
Leg-spinner Todd Astle entered the picture in the 19th over trying to stop Worker from reaching back-to-back half centuries. He didn't. But he did trap Renwick with a wrong 'un just as a 100-stand for the second wicket was raring into sight.
Astle would be not only Canterbury's workhorse, but leading wicket-taker with 4-96 off his 30 overs. The problem was that the Stags just kept coming. When Will Young joined Worker, it was the cue for quick Ed Nuttall to be brought back in. Young slapped him for four off a no ball, just as Worker had done earlier, raising the Stags' 100.
Worker was caught first ball after lunch on 53, off the glove. Astle and his Canterbury comrades converged into an excited huddle, jumping up and down like Maasai warriors. Sauntering in as Worker's replacement was Jesse Ryder. He popped Ellis for twin boundaries almost immediately.
Ryder, with his fast eye and sure-footed strokeplay, and Will Young, the lovely strokemaker who had swivelled his way to a century in the first innings, could not have been more different in batting style, but both were a must-watch and together they were equally explosive.
Young quickly got his touch going against Ellis and Astle as the chase began to diminish to 200, fewer than four an over the required rate. He pirouetted into a pull shot to post the Stags' 150 with another boundary off Astle, Ryder sweeping Johnston shortly afterwards for the 50-run stand.
Spin was feeding the dragon, the stand growing to 82. So, Ellis turned back to van Beek. And in just the second over of his spell, the allrounder had the breakthrough, Young furious with himself as he slayed, only to catch the edge and be caught behind just three short of backing up with a half-ton.
Tom Bruce arrived with a further 163 needed to win from a session and a half, but another brief stay buoyed the Canterbury attack: from 184 for three, now the Stags were 205 for five as Astle delighted in a simple caught and bowled.
It was a pivotal time in the innings; another quick couple of of blows and Canterbury would be back in the box seat. However, the batting acumen of wicketkeeper Dane Cleaver posed a challenge. Cleaver slowly played himself in either side of the tea break, Ryder by now just one run away from his half century, which he would duly post off 108 balls.
The Stags needed 135 from the last session to break their season hoodoo as Ryder gathered momentum and began to make the boundary look closer and closer. Cleaver, too, began to slam the ball around, posting the Stags' 250, and then a 50-stand with Ryder with consecutive boundaries off Ellis.
He was in sight of an attractive half-century of his own when he was suddenly bowled around his legs to become Astle's fourth victim.
Now, though, the advantage was very much back with the Stags, a further 51 required and plenty of overs to get them, Ryder poised on 85. The Stags were coming off a far closer run chase against the Firebirds, and now it seemed a dress rehearsal for the definitive match of round nine.
Cleaver would prove the last to fall. Adam Milne has showed good form with the bat since his return fro injury and he would put the 300 on the board at drinks, then Ryder would blast his first six off Nuttall to take himself into the 90s. Of his 23 first-class centuries, this was only his second for his original team and, when he got there, only 19 runs were required for a dramatic upset.
Milne had been cracking along himself at run-a-ball pace and it would be he who struck the winning runs, smashing a four and then six next ball to simultaneously bring up an unbroken 50-stand as the pair trooped in with a shock four-wicket victory. Around the country, other teams rejoiced too. It was going to be an interesting final week.
First innings batting bonus points, Canterbury 4 (maximum achieved), Central Stags 3 (completed)
First innings bowling bonus points, Central Stags 3 (completed), Canterbury 4 (maximum achieved)
Canterbury began "moving day" hunting a quick, full bag of bowling bonus points, but the Stags were determined to make them work for them.
Adam Milne got off the mark with a boundary first over of the day, and helped his captain Will Young chip away at the Cantabrian lead with quick runs in the first hour.
Capable Milne would help post the Stags' 300 as they shared a fifty stand for the seventh wicket, and he reached 38 off 52 balls on his own before Logan van Beek finally broke the pesky partnership shortly after drinks, his first wicket of the match.
It was the start of a speedy fightback from the visitors, Ed Nuttall then tearing in to put himself on a hat-trick with the wickets of both Patels, the Stags sliding from 304 for seven to 304 for nine to hand Canterbury the fourth and final bonus point.
Blair Tickner would survive the hat-trick ball and looked to hunker down with Young, unbeaten on 121 at the other end.
The big number eleven lasted 22 minutes before Ellis had him caught, to a magnificent low, one-handed grab at slip from Peter Fulton; the Stags all out before lunch for 315, giving Canterbury a 73-run first innings lead.
Young's unbeaten 128 had been just a boundary shy of his highest first-class score.
The middle session did not begin well for Canterbury either, Stags paceman Tickner picking up three big early wickets in Chad Bowes, Jack Boyle and Fulton.
By tea, Ken McClure and Cole McConchie had scrabbled through to 75 for three, their lead now 148 as the Plunket Shield frontrunners strove to recover — well aware that, down south, the second-placed Auckland Aces had got themselves into a winning position against the Volts. Canterbury now knew they needed an outright if they were to sew up the title with a round to spare.
McConchie was up for the challenge. The 25-year-old would go on to slam his second half century of the match with a six, then pelt another six off Tickner to register a 50-stand with Andrew Ellis in the same over.
Just as it seemed Canterbury was upping the stakes, the fifth-wicket stand was broken. Andrew Ellis had caught the bug, only to send a Navin Patel delivery out to Adam Milne in the deep instead. He walked back into the pavilion with the lead at 209, and McConchie was still in a position to drive Canterbury steadily forward.
McConchie buckled up and put the foot on the gas as the afternoon progressed. With Todd Astle he would pile on 117 runs for the sixth wicket, by which time Astle had his own half century, and McConchie a century off 130 balls (8 x 4, 3 x 6).
It had been a long afternoon for the Stags when, in the last half hour, suddenly the wickets came in a handful. Golden arm Tom Bruce picked up Astle and Tim Johnston in the space of three balls. Then fellow spinner Ajaz Patel claimed McConchie at the end of a brutal next over. It had cost 16 runs by the time McConchie was finally stopped on a career-best 131, the final two overs having produced 31 runs and three wickets.
And that was stumps. Canterbury heads into the last day ideally placed with a 346-run lead, the bottom-placed Stags ironically the only side that can stop them from lifting the Shield with a round to spare.
First innings batting bonus points, Canterbury 4 (maximum achieved), Central Stags 1 (in progress)
First innings bowling bonus points, Central Stags 3 (completed), Canterbury 2 (in progress)
Another pleasant day for cricket dawned at Saxton Oval with Canterbury adding 91 runs to their overnight score before being dismissed for 388. Adam Milne and leading 2016/17 wicket-taker Ajaz Patel each picked up three-fors for the Stags, Milne's first wickets since his return from injury.
Despite losing both openers soon after lunch (Andrew Ellis and Ed Nuttall, himself back from the hospital tent, each striking with consecutive wicket maidens), the Stags quickly bounced back thanks to a boundary-strewn 122-run partnership between George Worker and captain Will Young for the third wicket.
Worker continued his strong all-round season with 72 off just 96 deliveries before falling to Ellis (3-45), but captain Will Young carried on for his fourth first-class century, and second in as many matches, to be unbeaten on 102 at stumps.
The milestone arrived off 188 balls with 12 boundaries and two sixes, Young also ticking off his 3000th first-class run when he reached 51.
Unbeaten at stumps on 102, along the way he lost Worker, Jesse Ryder and Tom Bruce, then Dane Cleaver (24) fell on what proved the last delivery of the day, losing his off stump to Ed Nuttall to become the left-arm quick's second victim.
The Stags at 247/6 head into day three trailing Canterbury by 141 runs in the first innings, both teams just a whisker away from a further bonus point, albeit a futile one for the Stags.
Canterbury entered the penultimate round with one hand on the trophy, but would still also need one eye on other teams around the country while looking for a big one themselves to fight off any last-minute challengers.
Sent in, veteran batsman Peter Fulton got them on the right track with his 16th first-class century for his side, and 19th of his first-class career overall, bringing up a cracking ton shortly before tea on the first day.
His innings had stabilised the Canterbury effort after Central Stags quick Adam Milne had again made a sharp start with the ball, this time being rewarded with his first Plunket Shield wickets of the season in just the fifth over of the match.
Jack Boyle fell to a wicket maiden in Milne’s searing opening spell, Milne returning 1-17 off his first seven overs.
Then the quick delivered again, another wicket maiden in his lean second spell as Ken McClure edged behind on just four, Milne taking himself to 2-23 off 11 overs.
In between, spinner Ajaz Patel quickly grabbed a wicket maiden of his own, stopping Chad Bowes on 53 with an absolute ripper.
The form opener had slathered on 89 runs with Fulton until then for the second wicket. The pair was well matched in positive intent, each sending the ball over the rope and, after Bowes had been trapped, Cole McConchie gave Fulton the support he needed to keep the momentum flowing as Canterbury looked for the bonus points.
Shortly after tea they had their first, but it was McConchie now taking up the challenge after Fulton had been caught and bowled by Jesse Ryder soon after the break, the never to be underestimated Ryder creating excellent pressure as he went for just nine runs off eight overs.
The introduction of the second new ball would see both Navin Patel and Milne strike, Patel picking up a bonus when McConchie shouldered arms on 70, only for the ball to cannon into his off-stump: 277 for five.
Milne then collected his 50th first-class wicket just three overs later: Canterbury captain Andrew Ellis, caught on 31.
But by stumps, Canterbury was nevertheless in a good position, Todd Astle and Cameron Fletcher needing just three more runs in the morning to pick up the third batting bonus point inside the 110-overs cut-off.
The match is umpire John Dempsey’s first-class debut.