Another strong turnout on the terraces at Pukekura Park went home delighted after watching their talent-stacked Stags stand up with both bat and ball to whip their biggest rivals of this season.
The top-of-the-table clincher should have been closer on paper but, after a star turn from an unbeaten Ross Taylor in his first T20 match for the Stags since 2012 followed by a stunning maiden five-wicket bag from young paceman Blair Tickner in his first McDonald’s Super Smash season, the Aces were bumped down the table, while the Stags went clear.
Between iffy weather in the lead-up and a new pitch, the Stags had been keen to bowl first, but had been sent in by Aces captain Rob Nicol. And that was about the last thing that went well for the Aucklanders.
Taylor, returning for his first match at any level in four weeks since surgery to remove a pterygium on his eye, showed he had little problems seeing the ball as he slammed no fewer than eight sixes in his almost breezy, 41-ball unbeaten 82, and claimed two catches — including one to help Tickner on his way to a special day.
The Aces had made a good enough start with the ball to be fair, Donovan Grobbelaar dismissing George Worker third ball of the match and just two boundaries and one Mahela Jayawardena six coming from the top four overs — a fierce Tymal Mills, too, relishing the conditions.
After Jayawardena had started to unleash against Sean Solia in the fourth over, Mills struck back to have him caught for a relatively inexpensive 31 off 19 balls — bringing Taylor to the crease in the sixth over, where he would remain for the innings.
Taylor’s prolonged absences with the BLACKCAPS meant that he hadn’t even played alongside a number of his Stags teammates before, but it didn’t show as he quickly settled down to work.
Captain Will Young dominated for a period, peppering sixes off Nicol into the bank, before Taylor pounced on Nethula for the same treatment.
The Aces’ spin attack through the middle has been influential, and the innings hung on whether they could tame the head-butting Stags batsmen. Mark Chapman joined in and made an immediate breakthrough with the wicket of Young, caught on 30, off his first delivery, then newly selected Tom Bruce lasted just a couple of overs at his home ground as the same combo — catcher Glenn Phillips, bowler Mark Chapman — took him out as well.
Ebullience for the Aces, but not for long as big-hitting keeper-batsman Dane Cleaver joined Taylor to boom the score from 95 for four to 206 for five in the definitive partnership of the innings — a 111-run stand littered with sixes, including six no balls when Chapman let it fly too high against Taylor to ultimately wreck his own good day with 17 off the over.
It wasn’t the most expensive set, with Grobbelaar likewise coming in for late punishment from Taylor — he slammed two of the three sixes that creamed 24 off the 18th. By now the Stags were at full roar, and even after Cleaver was out to a lofted caught and bowled on 47 — off just 26 balls — in the last over, there was no stopping them. The batsmen had crossed, and Taylor just slapped another six as they got up to a net RPO of 10.70.
The Aces then had to contend with a new face in Luke Feldman, the solid Brisbane Heat paceman opening the attack after answering an emergency call from the Stags following the loss of Ben Wheeler to the BLACKCAPS (now whisked away as cover in the One-Day squad, in addition to his T20 call-up) — which had added problems given the absence of Andrew Mathieson, Doug Bracewell, Adam Milne and Bevan Small, all already out injured.
Feldman and Rance formed an experienced opening attack, but it was 23-year-old Tickner who would stand out — at the most unlikely ground. He came on in the fourth over against Phillips and Michael Guptill-Bunce, and tamed the two aggressive hitters with a rare T20 wicket maiden — Phillips his first victim as Ryan McCone collected the catch. It was off just his second ball.
His next over went for just three singles, then he came back for another wicket in the 14th, Ben Horne caught by Josh Clarkson. Now the Aces were 113 for six, lagging a little after George Worker once again had had an influential impact with the ball through the middle (all the more important on the day given Marty Kain had sat the match out with an injured neck). Tom Bruce had led the way in the field, too, making a stinging stop at point to save at least a couple against Phillips.
Sean Solia and Horne would go on to smash Worker’s figures in his fourth over, but the loss of Horne really stalled things for the Aces — and that was all it took to rapidly escalate the equation, and all the pressure, at the death.
They were 117/6 through 15 overs after McCone restricted it to just four runs: the Stags had been 131/4. Feldman came back and conceded just seven, then McCone just six. The Stags were on top. The pressure was boiling over.
Stage set. Back came big Tickner, taking the ball for the 19th with the Aces already in no man’s land. He got Michael Barry and Grobbelaar to put himself on a hat-trick, but the rest of the Stags were already jumping up and down around him at the realisation of his five wickets.
Nine down and out of it, the Aces would not survive much longer, Tickner fittingly taking the catch off Feldman to remove Mills in the last over and wrap up a brilliant win.