The Stags avenged their loss in last year’s Grand Final to the Firebirds at the same venue with an emphatic 56-run win to keep their title hopes alive.
Their victory means five of the six teams remain alive heading into the final round on Sunday in a thrillingly competitive and tight competition.
The two teams now continue their fight for survival in a rematch at the Basin Reserve on Super Sunday. Should the Stags win that match, and the Canterbury Kings lose to the Knights, the Stags will qualify for the 2 v 3 sudden death Elimination Final.
Should the Firebirds win the match, they will also require the Kings to lose in order to progress.
Should the Canterbury Kings win their match on Sunday, and the Stags also win theirs, the two sides will finish on equal points and the third qualifier will be decided on net run rate.
The Stags were coming off a blistering batting performance in Invercargill yet, despite their captain Will Young having claimed the toss, the Firebirds would have been happy with their start with the ball — the star Stags opening duo of Jesse Ryder and George Worker both huge early wickets for Logan van Beek (3-60).
However, the Stags would recover quickly, then get up for a 210-total after the deep batting order kept sending the ball sailing into the delighted terraces.
BLACKCAP Tom Bruce’s purposeful injection of runs brought a quick 59 off just 29 balls to get the innings really rolling, five sixes among his runs as the Stags swiftly delivered the 1700-strong crowd a Whopper 6 deal all by themselves.
An experienced Taranaki combo on this ground, Bruce (above) and Young (37 from 23) put on 69 for the third wicket while it was Dane Cleaver and Ben Wheeler’s 84-run sixth-wicket finishing that really put the icing on the cake — and had ensured the Stags didn’t lose crucial momentum as the Firebirds chipped out wickets in between.
Normally tagged as a bowling allrounder, Wheeler is proving a dark horse with the bat, yet again this season reaching a T20 career best and leaving his previous PB of 22 well behind this time with an invaluable 47 off 22.
He would fall with just one ball remaining in the innings, and just one blow from what would have been a deserved maiden half ton, then backed up with the ball in a solid team attack taking 1-22 off his four overs for an impressive dot ball percentage of 66.7 at the boutique venue.
Cleaver’s unbeaten 43 from 25 meanwhile meant the Stags’ lower order wasn’t exposed at the death, frustrating the Firebirds whose early joy dissipated in the sweltering afternoon humidity.
The Firebirds were under pressure to win the match in order to remain masters of their own destiny at the pointy end of what’s now frantic points table jostling, but BLACKCAP Seth Rance (below) ensured they, too, got off to a shaky start with the bat — on target immediately as he scored a direct hit on scoreless Luke Ronchi’s off-stump in just the third ball of the reply.
Fellow opener Hamish Marshall didn’t fare too much better thanks to spinner Ajaz Patel and a piece of bad luck as the ball ricocheted off his heel back onto his castle.
But it was the next wicket that really set the match alive, Jesse Ryder diving and tumbling low to his right to pull off the catch of the season, English import Samit Patel sent on his way for just 12 and half those runs coming from the six he had just effortlessly lifted off Tickner before the Ryder special.
Wheeler then backed up with the ball in a solid team attack, taking 1-22 off his four overs for an impressive dot ball percentage of 66.7 at the boutique venue.
At 49 for three in the seventh the Firebirds could yet take control of their chase, but the Stags kept backing up their disciplined bowling with big moment in the field — moments that proved the difference.
A sharp one-handed flick from keeper Cleaver that saw Michael Bracewell run out was the last thing they needed.
Tom Blundell survived and looked in good control of his innings, reaching his half century off 37 balls.
But when he scooped one in the 14th over off Tickner, Patel gratefully got under the ball for the grab and the match took a dark turn for the Firebirds.
Composed Devon Conway held on for a 34-ball 49, but with little support for him the chase ran away on the Firebirds until they were left needing a challenging 66 off three overs, ultimately handing a 56-run victory to their foe.
Tickner remains the top wicket-taker in the competition after claiming a two-for to move to 16 victims from nine games, three clear of Canterbury King Andrew Ellis.
After a hot and cold season, the Stags will have been pleased to have done the job with both bat and ball for a second match running, and will head to the Basin Reserve for Super Sunday with chins up as one of three teams capable of clinching the third playoff spot.