In a runfest, from the pits of the table, with the slow bowlers closing it out with the balls ticking away and the opposition nine down and a number eleven desperately trying to hold out (and supporters on either side clutching the edge of their laptops) the Devon Hotel Central Stags finally broke through for their first outright win of the 2015/16 Plunket Shield season.
The much-needed 87-run nailbiter victory late on a McLean Park afternoon came just as the match had run into extra time, the Firebirds' backs against the walls as the Stags hunted their last wicket.
Brent Arnel, better known for taking wickets than defending them, was all defence against the twin spin attack of George Worker and Ajaz Patel. Runs, right now, were just lace at the looming end of the match. The equation had gotten away on the Firebirds as wickets kept tumbling, now four score runs adrift.
But the Stags? They needed that win.
In the end, sometime bunny Arnel would fend off 18 scoreless balls for a red-inker. It would be his partner, Matt Bacon, who would deliver joy into the hands of the Stags when he was caught behind off Worker just as regulation time on the clock was up, ending the avian resistance at 281, having been set a chase of 357.
For the first time in the match, a side had been bowled out.
The result was a tribute to sporting declarations from both captains, neither of whom was in the mood for draws. While the Volts continued to try to hold out against the Aces up north, suddenly the Stags had liftoff from the bottom of the table, into fifth spot in the sixth round.
Worker and Patel had been the last innings heroes, the spinners taking four wickets apiece as the visitors looked for 369 from the last two sessions; Kurt Richards' early breakthrough (removing Michael Papps) had also been key.
They had joined forces to dislodge what proved to be the most influential wicket, Worker taking the catch off Patel to dismiss BLACKCAP Luke Ronchi on 88.
Ronchi was the ninth to fall, exposing Bacon and Arnel. He'd lost a strong of rearguard partners, the Firebirds flipped from 205 for four to 231/8 before Ronchi departed. Scott Borthwick (caught) and Tom Blundell (run out) had both fallen with the score stuck on 205.
The day had started well for the Stags. Tapping his 11th boundary, seasoned opening batsman Greg Hay cruised to his seventh first-class century early in the morning session on the final day, but he would lose partner Worker shortly before the Stags' 250 was up on the McLean Park scoreboard.
Worker had been caught by Firebirds skipper Papps just one shy of a half-century, off fellow spinner Jeet Patel. Replacement at the crease Tom Bruce wasted little time in finding his first boundary, but he, too, would be gone inside the first hour when he was bowled cheaply by Brent Arnel: a ding or two in the scoreboard now, at 250/5.
The wicket brought first innings maiden centurion Dane Cleaver to the middle to join Hay on 112.
Hay would carry his bat for an undefeated 127 after more than four hours in total at work, Cleaver departing for 27 before Will Young called his batsmen in at 314 for six declared, the third innings of the match to be called in such a manner.
To win, the Firebirds would require 357 runs from the afternoon at 5.13 per over, but they suffered a quick setback when Richards struck in the tricky short period before lunch, the visitors 25/1 at the break as the Firebirds' skipper again departed cheaply in the match.
But Luke Woodcock got the account humming with his 63, combining productively with Stephen Murdoch.
Murdoch played the role of the aggressor, would-be gamechanger and striker of quick runs as the Firebirds looked to make their own hay in pursuit of the game target.
But after what had seemed a capital middle seassion, he would be stumped on 82, just before the tea interval, a wicket that put the Firebirds at 157 for three at the break, needing to reboot for the final 212 runs required in the last session. How close it would prove in a first-class thriller.
Stumps score: Devon Hotel Central Stags 211/3 (second innings; Ben Smith 40, Will Young 37, Greg Hay 95 not out, George Worker 35 not out), leading by 265 runs. Earlier: Wellington Firebirds 370/7 declared (Tom Blundell 92, Fred Colson 34; Kurt Richards career best 3-77) at McLean Park, Napier
Runs continued to flow from the middle of McLean Park after the Firebirds resumed at 231/5 on the third morning, declarations the key to finding a favourable result.
Visiting captain Michael Papps decided to call his lads in at 370 for seven: 54 runs behind the Stags' first innings total.
The productive Tom Blundell had helped their cause with a worthy 92, but it would prove hardly enough to daunt a batting line-up as power-packed as that of the Devon Hotel Central Stags.
The home batsmen simply picked up from where they had left off in the first innings, 211 for three by stumps for an overall lead of 265.
Opener Greg Hay was poised for a seventh first-class century, unbeaten on 95 overnight with George Worker assisting on 35 not out.
Earlier, local Stag Kurt Richards had pocketed a career best 3-77 against the Firebirds on a surface that made all the pacemen toil hard for their loot.
Stumps score: Wellington Firebirds 231/5 (Luke Woodcock 70, Stephen Murdoch 89,) trail the Devon Hotel Central Stags by 193 on the first innings (earlier: George Worker 123, Dane Cleaver 151 maiden first-class century) at McLean Park, Napier
Dane Cleaver reached his maiden first-class century in signature style, with a boundary in a joyful morning session for the Devon Hotel Central Stags — shortly after George Worker had already posted a belligerent ton of his own, a fifth first-class century for the dangerous Worker.
The pair had put on an epic 230 runs for the sixth wicket before Worker was finally stumped off Jeetan Patel on 123, after having batted for almost five hours at the crease, and having already seen Cleaver to three figures and onto 107.
Their stand was just five runs short of the Central Districts all-time record, set by Mathew Sinclair and Bevan Griggs at the Basin in 2008/09.
Cleaver would make his maiden century a big one, thundering on to an unbeaten 151, and when he reached the milestone of 150 captain Will Young declared in order to have a crack at the Firebirds before lunch.
Toil as they may, there had been no further joy for the Firebirds' bowling attack, Cleaver's 150 (in an ultimate tally of 151 not out) flying off 208 balls and including 20 boundaries and five sixes.
Chasing the Stags' confident declaration of 424, the Firebirds suffered a quick setback with the loss of captain Michael Papps off the very first ball of their innings: caught for a golden by Ben Smith, off one of the local Stags, Blair Tickner.
After ruminating at lunch with the scoreboard at 12/1, Stephen Murdoch and Luke Woodcock did a good job of steadying the ship after the interval, putting on 156 for the second wicket.
Woodcock had built his way to 70 before Tickner had a hand in his dismissal, too — taking the catch off Kurt Richards, a fellow medium-fast paceman from the Bay.
It started an undoing, as just under 10 overs down the track new man Scott Borthwick was trapped by left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel, Murdoch following him back soon after when another catch stuck in Tickner's mitt.
But the most elation was perhaps saved for when Luke Ronchi departed for just 27, after having launched his innings at ominous run-a-ball pace: the capital's men were now 229 for five, the wicket falling with just a handful of overs until stumps on a day that belonged largely to their hosts.
Stumps score: Devon Hotel Central Stags 317/5 (Greg Hay 48, Ben Smith 46, Tom Bruce 37, George Worker 86 not out, Dane Cleaver career best 85 not out) in 96 overs against the Wellington Firebirds on 20 Febuary 2016 at McLean Park, Napier
As the pressure started to build towards the business end of the Plunket Shield, brought to you by Budget Rental, the Devon Hotel Central Stags proved the only team on the opening day of round six to be still trucking by stumps on the first day.
In sunny Napier the opening pair of Greg Hay and Ben Smith made hay (sorry) while the sun (sorry) shone, putting on 93 for the first wicket before Firebirds paceman Dane Hutchinson broke through with an lbew decision against Hay in the 34th over.
The charging tyro quickly made it two, bowling first drop Mitch Renwick for a duck on debut in the same over.
It started a flurry. The Stags’ antlers dimmed a little when captain Will Young was caught behind cheaply off Brent Arnel shortly afterwards.
But George Worker would use his experience to steady the ship and settle in.
Briefly that was with Smith — who would depart just shy of a half century when he, too, was caught behind off Arnel.
Then Worker built solid stands, first with the attacking Tom Bruce, who smashed his 37 off just 22 balls as the ball kept finding its way across the rope.
Then Worker ensured no wickets would fall in the last session, along with wicketkeeper batsman Dane Cleaver who emulated Worker’s blend of patience and flourishing strokeplay for a career best by stumps.
The pair had shared a 169-run partnership for the sixth wicket off 294 balls, the Stags well placed to build a serious first innings total with 317 on the board from their opening day’s work.