Mahela Jayawardena enjoyed his Central Stags return. Image: www.photosport.nz

Wheels on fire in thrilling clutch finish

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Tom Bruce was giving it death facing off against Neil Wagner. It may not have been pretty as usual, but with three balls remaining he sent all three to the rope, 16 runs flying off the over. Clutch cricket, and it wouldn’t be the last gripping over at McLean Park that night.

Wagner left fuming as the Central Stags giddied up to put 166 for five on the board, it was a stunning evening in Napier. And while the tally may have been fewer than the Stags would have liked, that last-ditch rally would prove utterly crucial.

The Volts were coming fresh off an exciting clutch win against the Knights, while the Stags had come into their Napier match unbeaten after a win and a promising half-game washout over in Taranaki. Captain Will Young had been doing his bit by flicking the coin in the right direction and had jumped at batting on a hard deck after a hot and sunny Hawke’s Bay day.

His line-up had now been turbo-boosted by the arrival of the big star Mahela Jayawardena, brining his amazing timing and touch back for a second season with the likable Stags; and the return of booming Jesse Ryder from a calf niggle. Big young paceman Blair Tickner also brought an unknown factor in on T20 debut in the place of the injured Doug Bracewell.

The Volts got off to a shaky start as they looked to chase the Stags down, but, like the well balanced Stags, they had plenty of cards up their sleeve down the order.

Neil Broom was fresh with the news of having been recalled into the BLACKCAPS that morning, and was always going to be a huge wicket. He had entered the stage in just the second over, after Anaru Kitchen lost out to a strong throw from Tickner, and the departure of top order mates Hamish Rutherford and Michael Bracewell in short order as well had increased the pressure on Broom to stand up and be counted.

Few slam the ball harder than the experienced Volts man through the off-side and he was looking well set, reaching 28 off 25 balls — including some punishing boundaries — before spinner Marty Kain got him with a change of pace, the catch lobbed to Will Young at cover: 57/4 in  the eighth over.

As a big orange moon rose behind the embankment, Tickner would come into the attack in the ninth over against the force that is Jimmy Neesham and talent-packed Josh Finnie — the new man after George Worker had dismissed Derek de Boorder, a simple catch to Jayawardena having put them in further strife at 61/5, two wickets falling in the space of three balls.

It had been a great tussle: fearless Volts batting versus the Stags’ sharp fielding and never to be underestimated attack. Kain went for just 11 from his two overs and took an outstanding catch, and Worker’s successful over cost just two runs: small differences that meant the Stags would claw back on top.

But Neesham and Finnie, too, are never to be underestimated and rattled up a dangerous 50-stand. Finnie lifted Tickner for a clean six into the stand, the shot of the night — costing the T20 debutant nine runs in his first. Back-to-back fours from Neesham off Worker had the Stags home crowd sensing the danger even more, but the momentum braked when Finnie, on 27, was bowled by Seth Rance — who had earlier opened the attack superbly as usual: 113/6.

It was a relief for Worker who had double-dropped Finnie on 10, the ball eluding the fingertips of first one hand and then the other in a valiant effort, on one of those nights when not quite everything went to plan for the home side — yet they always came back. Moreover, that 12th over — Blair Tickner’s second — had cost just two runs. Every ball counted. It pushed the Volts’ required run rate into double figures.

Earlier, Mahela Jayawardena had parked a ball on the roof of the stand as he stood up and delivered a 44-ball 62 — just like last season, a half century first game. Six fours. Two sixes. What a pro. He was a thrilling combo with Jesse Ryder, who punched 25 off 22 as they lifted the score from 36/1 to 88/2 in just under six overs together.

Warren Barnes and Jimmy Neesham would pick up a brace of wickets each — Neesham claiming Jayawardena when Anaru Kitchen jumped high on the boundary to pluck the ball down, but the Stags bat deep and Bruce’s 19-ball 33 was a good closer.

So now, here the Volts were with five overs to go, themselves trying to get up at the death. Neesham kept his cool but on 34 was undone by an unbelievable grab from Kain, the first of Ben Wheeler’s big strikes for the night.

The Volts scrambled themselves into a position where they needed 35 off the last 17 balls — doable, and with capable batting come, Brad Wilson — batting way down at nine — and Bradley Scott full of experience, not to mention Wagner. Two sixes from Wilson in the 19th over had the Volts’ hopes high of another thrilling win. But Wheeler was not done. Ripping out Wilson’s middle stump first ball of the last over, now the Volts needed 13 from five….. nine off three…. eight off two….. but Wheeler was too good. Clutch finish. Stags unbeaten and top of the table. It would be the home crowd that went home happy: a win by five runs.

SHOT OF THE NIGHT
It takes a lot to trump Mahela Jayawardena but young Volt Josh Finnie’s six was out of this world.

Scorecard