A big-scoring men's clash opened the sudden death Elimination Final show in Dunedin. The Volts had been on a good roll, but it would be Northern exposure against a reinforced Brave side with BLACKCAP Mitch Santner back in the mixer.
The hosts had suffered an early blow with the late scratching of captain Hamish Rutherford, a back niggle during warm-ups leading to Dean Foxcroft’s captaincy debut for the Volts, with Dale Phillips replacing the veteran Rutherford in the line-up.
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Foxcroft promptly won his first toss and bowled on a brisk, showery Dunedin morning against defending champion Northern Brave, who entered the knockout as the third-ranked qualifier.
Openers Katene Clarke and Tim Seifert (below) made a bold, fast start.
In his designated role as an explosive aggressor, Clarke hit a boundary off Ben Lockrose’s first ball of the match, and the pair punched four sixes between them inside the first four overs to get the 50 on the board quickly, on a good surface.
The Volts pacemen were all put under early pressure and, when Jacob Duffy came on for his second over, Seifert smashed him into the stand first ball.
It was that kind of day for the Volts as Brave raced to 77 for no loss after 5.3 overs. Then a shower brought a brief pause, with Clarke needing just four further runs for a fast half ton.
Clarke had headed into the big game with just one T20 fifty from his 24 games but brushed off the interruption to pick the perfect moment to blast his first fifty against the Volts, off just 24 balls.
The team hundred was on the board before Ben Lockrose made the breakthrough, Seifert bowled for a 23-ball 42 at 105/1 in the ninth.
Brave looked to keep the pressure on by elevating hard hitter Brett Hampton to first drop, while spinners Lockrose and Michael Rippon looked to slow down the heavy damage, with six of the first seven overs having been expensive, double-digit affairs.
Lockrose was unlucky not to pick up Hampton on 11 when an inside edge managed to avoid ricocheting onto his stumps. Then Clarke, the cruncher from Counties Manukau, reached his T20 career best before Dale Phillips made the leap of his life to haul in what looked to be another six.
Making a late play for the catch of the tournament, Phillips caught the ball one-handed to stop Clarke on 73 off 39 rocks, bringing Brave captain Jeet Raval to the middle early in the 14th.
It was a short stay for the captain but Hampton kept the run rate bubbling with 14 runs off the last three balls of the over, and Brave were poised to set a mega-chase.
But at the three-quarters mark, Matt Bacon struck a much-needed blow by trapping Hampton with a slower ball for a 23-ball 44 at 173/3 and the Volts started to pull things back for a while.
They had Mitch Santner to contend with now, Foxcroft bringing himself on for the challenge as the death overs began, with another brief shower interrupting his over and the match reduced to 18 overs per side.
Dr Death Duffy returned for the last, Brave starting the 18th at 187/4. Could they push a 200-plus total onto the tins? Santner pumped a six over Duffy's head, 12 coming off the last to see Brave finish with 199/4.
The covers went back on during the innings break, the Volts having a think about the 11.39 runs per over they needed to stay alive.
That rate was adjusted to RPO 11.8 after the weather shortened the chase to 177 off 15 overs, with a five-over power play.
While Phillips slotted in for Rutherford at the top after a run of low scores in the T20 format, Jake Gibson was coming off a couple of superb big knocks of 96 and 75 not out - so he was a huge first-over wicket for Neil Wagner, bowling downwind, who had him caught at mid-off for just a single.
Phillips may have been feeling optimistic the worm had turned after reaching double figures, but 13 proved to be an unlucky number for him as Wagner broke his stumps at 33/2 in the fourth over.
The Volts needed to fight fire with fire and captain Foxcroft looked to turn on the flamethrower with Llew Johnson. He's already punched an early six and now took boundaries off Wagner and Scott Kuggeleijn, and hit his second six to be 61/2 after five.
Mitch Santner came on and kept things tight until Johnson blasted him for six. Brave had the luxury of a diverse three-prong spin attack through the middle and Joe Walker followed up with the crucial wicket of Foxcroft (39 off 16) a few balls later.
Tim Pringle took out Johnson next over, and suddenly the required rate had climbed on the Volts as the Brave turned the screws.
Josh Finnie and Max Chu (below) got the Volts 100 on the board in the 10th with the hosts left needing 74 runs off 33 balls.
It was a big one for the fighting southerners, Finnie smashing two sixes off Santner who conceded 22 runs off the over, and injured his bowling hand to boot.
Kuggeleijn enjoyed a good battle with the pair before Pringle returned and struck a huge blow in his maiden season at a crucial moment, Chu stumped with 52 required off 22.
The ticket to the Grand Final boiled down whether the Volts could belt 32 runs from the last 12 balls, just five wickets down, with Josh Finnie going well, the big Lockrose at the crease - and weather returning with the Volts behind the DLS.
It all added up to a big dollop of pressure as Lockrose sent up a catch to the deep off wily Wagner.
Michael Rippon joined flying Finnie who had galloped to 38 not out, while Wagner continued the fight for the Brave, until 23 runs were needed off the last over.
Something special was needed to save the Volts now, with Hampton bowling the last.
After a good start by the bowler, the Volts were left needing boundaries off his last four deliveries. Rippon knew it, but could only send the ball into the hands of Raval in desperation.
Now, three sixes would buy a last chance in a Super Over. But Hampton was up to the task and Finnie (43 off 22) was run out in a scramble.
It would be a Brave-Kings Grand Final, just the same as last season, in 2022/23, as the Volts dream was over.