Closing out tight finishes is fast becoming a Stags speciality as Central’s stars once again dominated the death over battles.
Pacy allrounder Ben Wheeler backed up his Napier heroics with the ball in almost identical fashion by taking out Michael Pollard, bowled first ball of the 19th over of the chase — a massive wicket given Pollard had pumped him for two sixes in the sixteenth as the winless Wellington Firebirds desperately tried to get themselves on the board.
The Birds had needed 38 runs off the last three overs, in front of a buoyant Stags crowd at a warm Saxton Oval — chasing 182 after the Stags’ elegant yet brutal Tom Bruce had underpinned the green machine’s 181/5 with an unbeaten 72 off just 35 balls.
“Bruiser” Bruce drove the Stags from 46/3 to 165/5 as they quickly recovered from the shock of seeing Mahela Jayawardena’s middle stump on the ground, having been bowled early doors by his opposing pro Jade Dernbach.
George Worker and Will Young put together a useful 40-run stand that was prised apart by Grant Elliott’s arrival in the seventh over, but it was Bruce — moving up to bat at four after the Stags went in without injured Jesse Ryder in the 12 this round — who took command after the Firebirds had got their tails up with their good early breakthroughs and catches.
Bruce stated his intent when he slammed Elliott for back-to-back sixes and a four as he and Dane Cleaver ripped 20 runs off the ninth over. His third six, a straight smash off Evan Gulbis, was even more handsome. His half century came up in just 26 balls — with another boundary — as captain Hamish Marshall turned to all his top bowling resources to no avail.
Jeetan Patel won a minor battle in the 16th over when he restricted the scoring to singles, but Bruce, by now joined by exciting local lad Josh Clarkson, made sure the Stags had a good finish in them. Clarkson put the ball into the ice cream truck in his unbeaten 27 and, after Bruce was caught and bowled by Patel in the final over, Wheeler helped out with a big six of his own to the delight of the opposite bank.
It was just the ticket for the Stags after having been sent in — captain Young said they would have batted anyway — on a surface that had a bit of cling in it for the bowlers.
But the Firebirds made a good start chasing the stiff target, Marshall and Michael Papps caning 24 runs off the first two overs. When Seth Rance came in for over three, however the tone abruptly changed, and from there the pressure and required run rate steadily mounted on the batsmen.
Blair Tickner’s cheap dismissal of Luke Ronchi at the halfway mark was a huge moment, as was the Ryan McCone catch in the deep that ended Grant Elliott’s stay just a few overs later, off the bowling of spinner Worker.
Marshall was on 48 at the time and went on to get his 50 but not much more when he was caught and bowled by Worker — Pollard and Luke Woodcock now left to try to get up against a required run rate of almost 15.
It was an explosive effort, but Wheeler and wily Rance — one of the most consistent white ball seamers in domestic cricket — were too good at the death, holding the Firebirds to 172/6 after they had needed a tough 26 off the final over.
The thrilling nine-run win temporarily pushed the Stags back on top of the points table before Colin de Grandhomme’s Auckland ballistics that evening edged the Aces back into the uppermost slot with a two-point lead.
The Stags now head to New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park to attempt to make it two from two against the Volts at 4pm Wednesday afternoon, and will look forward to a Boxing Day rematch with the Firebirds at the Basin Reserve.