Plunket Shield round nine: SKYCITY Northern Knights 240 all out in 68.2 overs (Devcich 132, Sodhi 29; Arnel 6-62) and 214 all out in 64.5 overs (Devcich 69, Aldridge 37; Arnel 3-59) lost to the Wellington Firebirds 287 all out in 95.1 overs (Joon 113, Franklin 65; Aldridge 3-65, Baker 3-60) and 169/4 in 35 overs (Papps 73, Murdoch 59; Kuggeleijn 3-31) by six wickets at the Basin Reserve, Wellington
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Two early wickets, including number four Daryl Mitchell run out by Stephen Murdoch for a duck, put the SKYCITY Northern Knights under pressure early, Anton Devcich once more thrust into the position of innings redeemer. With BJ Watling he nudged his side into the lead, but the heavy work was all in front of them.
Devcich went on to post his fourth consecutive half century or better with a cracking boundary, posting a fifty off 70 balls, taking charge in a 50-run stand with Watling. But the smiles in the players' viewing area just as quickly retracted when Watling was sent back in next over, caught off Brent Arnel on 22 to become Arnel's 300th first-class wicket.
By lunch they had both gone, the Knights 130/7 with a lead of just 83 after spinner Jeetan Patel took care of both Devcich, caught for an 80-ball 69, and Mitchell Santner, caught behind very next ball to put Patel on an unconverted hat-trick.
Keen to give himself something to bowl at, a swashbuckling Graeme Aldridge (37 off 48, including a six and six fours) upped the tempo for the last two wickets, putting on 43 for the last with Jimmy Baker, until Arnel swooped in for his third and final strike and a fine match haul of 9-121.
The Firebirds had oceans of time to reach their target of 168 to win, but Michael Papps attacked it from the outset, stinging Aldridge for two boundaries off the first two balls of the chase. After going to tea at 27/0, they returned evidently eager to have the following day off, and wrapped up the win in little more than two hours as Stephen Murdoch (59 off 63, with three sixes in his half-century) followed in Papps' wake after he was caught an 89-ball 73.
Scott Kuggeleijn had the empty satisfaction of having taken three of the four wickets, including a caught and bowled to dismiss Murdoch. But it was too late for the Knights, who were now narrowly clinging onto third place on the table, the Firebirds suddenly right behind them with their 17-point victory.
The Firebirds' third win on the trot may be a shade late for their title hopes, Canterbury having already moved up a little on bonus points in this round. And, while the Knights are in contention, their own hopes had just taken a big hit ahead of the final round next week.
After resuming at 35/1, the Wellington Firebirds added 19 runs in the first hour before Graeme Aldridge made the first strike of the day with Stephen Murdoch caught on 24. Later, leggie Ish Sodhi grabbed a wicket in his third over when he tweaked one through Michael Pollard, the Firebirds' number four falling on 21.
That brought captain James Franklin to the crease just four overs before lunch and, thanks to Deepak Joon's persistence, by the break the Firebirds were trailing by 110, Joon unbeaten on 62 — his highest score for the Firebirds in his debut season, six boundaries in his half-century.
It was the 32-year-old left-hander's fourth fifty this summer and this time he converted it to his first ton for the Firebirds, his captain following with his half-century in the next over. It was Joon's second career first-class century and it had been almost a decade between drinks, having notched his maiden for Haryana in India in the 2005/06 season.
The pair had been enjoying the spinners at either end, Franklin tucking into a six off Sodhi. But just as the Firebirds were about to move into credit, a change of pace bought the wicket of Franklin, Aldridge nailing him caught behind for what had been a bright 65.
Joon's fall soon after for a career-best 113 triggered a collapse, the Firebirds squandering an opportunity as they lost their last six wickets for just 39 runs. The pace attack had mopped up the Firebirds for 267, a lead of just 47 in the last session. More importantly for the Knights in this penultimate round, they'd bagged a maximum four bowling bonus points, after having missed out on picking up any batting bonus.
Bad light stopped play with the Knights off to a rocky second innings beginning, 15/2 in seven overs after Matt McEwan knocked over Dean Brownlie's poles then trapped Brad Wilson for a duck.
The Firebirds' decision to bowl paid snappy dividends as the Knights, second on the table, hit trouble street at the Basin.
By lunch on the first day, the Knights were shocked onto the back foot at 94/5, then Mitchell Santner and Scott Kuggeleijn fell in the space of three overs soon after the break to have the potent yet inconsistent visitors seven down, just 155 on the board.
Defiant in the face of the carnage was Anton Devcich, in at five. Fresh from his first Plunket Shield century, and a fast fifty to go with it, in the previous round, Devcich swung his bat with his usual uninhibited gusto. On 43 at lunch, he tallied six fours and a six in his half century, composed in exactly two hours as he almost single-handedly put some runs on the board for the Knights.
Remarkably, after having gone 10 years and 31 first-class matches for the Knights without breaking a ton, he quickly had two in the space of two innings, in consecutive games as the peppy Ish Sodhi stuck with him to put on more than 60 runs for the eighth wicket. A boundary, his 13th, off Brent Arnel had taken him 99, before Sodhi played out a maiden.
Firebirds captain James Franklin brought on Jeetan Patel to try to winkle out a nervous wicket, but a single second ball brought up Devcich's ton off just 138 balls. Devcich carried on to post his highest firs-class score, but more importantly had restored his side from a perilous 32/5 to 208/7 by tea, his partnership with Sodhi now swelling to 93 runs.
Arnel finally broke the impudent stand from his old team, collecting his 12th first-class five-wicket bag in the process in the process and ending with 6-62, just 10 runs shy of equalling his recent career-best for the Firebirds. Tailender Graeme Aldridge had done his best to slap on some hasty late runs before the innings was closed at 240, a mark that had seemed highly unlikely after that rocky first session opened the day.
It was Arnel's second six-for in the space of three games:
When bad light ended play, the Firebirds were 35/1 in reply with James Baker having bowled Michael Papps on 18: an overnight lead to the Knights of 205.