Central Stags beat Wellington Firebirds by 2 wickets (DLS)
Pukekura Park, New Plymouth
A scratchy DLS win in another late-starting, shortened game against the Wellington Firebirds was all it took for the Central Stags to lock in a trip to Queenstown as this season's top qualifier in The Ford Trophy.
The Firebirds had meanwhile headed into their last round in second spot on the ladder - with the top two teams going through, but finished the match in third spot after the Auckland Aces picked up their second bonus point victory on the bounce to go ahead of them.
However, that doesn't mean it's curtains for the Firebirds - because, due to the lockdown-delayed start to the summer, the Aces and Volts only play nine rounds, while the other four teams play 10 rounds. It was agreed therefore that the table would be ranked on average points per game. The Aces have two matches remaining - and if they lose both of them, the Firebirds will be off to the ball after all.
One of the those last two games for the Aces will be against the unbeaten Stags on Thursday in Auckland, and the Stags will be keen to use the opportunity to pick up their green socks after a less polished win on Sunday - even with the bonus point.
Friday's game, also against the Firebirds at Pukekura, was the only match that the Stags had not pocketed a bonus point, missing out by just three runs. But that was a more dominant performance than on Sunday when heavy early morning rain left a damp outfield, the toss delayed until after lunch and the Firebirds electing to bat on what was now a 32-over game on warm, sunny afternoon.
Adam Milne (3-35) made a quick impact, however, and took a key early wicket in Finn Allen at 20/1. First drop Jakob Bhula tinkered away effectively to steady the ship, reaching 50 at almost run-a-ball pace before departing at 118/3, joining Luke Georgeson (23) back in the tent.
That was where hopes began to decay for the visitors. Milne struck again in the following over as Brad Schmulian caught a screamer to dismiss Troy Johnson, then left-arm spinner Jayden Lennox celebrated the huge wicket of Michael Bracewell at 138/5.
The Firebirds' potent all-round duo of Nathan Smith and Logan van Beek meant that the Firebirds weren't on the back foot just yet, but Milne rattled Smith's pickets for his third wicket at 138/6 and van Beek was caught trying to hit out at the death, leaving the tail to try to scramble some quick late runs.
Ben Sears found the boundary three times for a quick injection, meanwhile Seth Rance had picked up his 100th List A victim by trapping Ollie Newton as the Stags held their guests to a 191/8: a run-a-ball chase at the boutique ground.
Newton quickly got himself back in the game with the ball, taking out both Stags openers at 35/2 to ensure the hosts did not emulate their launchpad from Friday.
But Ross Taylor - in what may well have been his last innings at Pukekura Park - once again made sure the Stags stayed in control of a niggly chase. He backed up Friday's record century with a half century off 31 balls, before Sears took revenge and his wicket the very next ball.
Taylor had shared a 79-run stand with first drop Schmulian to take the team to 124/4 and, although the Firebirds fought back with the ball, Central had too much depth to be in serious danger of running out of opportunities to get across the line.
Ultimately that honour went to captain Tom Bruce in his 50th Ford Trophy match for the Stags, the winning boundary in the 25th over not only confirming a bonus point, but a ticket to Queenstown for their first Ford Trophy Final in several seasons.
The Grand Final is in Queenstown on 26 February with a nervous wait now in store for the Firebirds.