The difficulty of trying to bowl out quality players on a pitch resembling SH1 was brought home to the Bay of Plenty bowlers against Northland at the Bay Oval yesterday.
In spite of batting through most of day one, Bay of Plenty lost first-innings points in the Fergus Hickey Rosebowl match but still lead the chase for a Hawke Cup challenge against Hamilton, barring a miracle of sorts in the final round of matches in a fortnight.
The Bay would need to capitulate to Counties at the same venue, with cup holders Hamilton doing likewise to Northland, for the Bay to lose their chance of challenging for the symbol of minor association cricket.
Neither outcome is likely but it was still disappointing for Bay of Plenty that their fine first innings on Saturday was about 50 to 60 runs short in perfect batting conditions on the excellent Bay Oval block.
Batting first, the Bay team set Northland what looked to be a large first-innings target when they declared late on the first day at 352-8.
A 117-run partnership between young gun Bharat Popli (66) and Scott Steward (58) put the home team in a strong position at 190/4.
But a mini collapse saw the Bay's quest for a big total stagger a little until Brett Hampton took control.
The Greerton allrounder blasted 81 off just 88 balls to increase his side's momentum and he displayed the full range of his attacking strokes.
New Zealand under-19 player Sean Davey dug in with Hampton and was 38 not out when Bay skipper Jono Boult made the declaration late in the afternoon.
Watching Hampton bat is one of cricket's great pleasures so far this season, as his totally natural style and ease of stroke-making marks him as a player of great promise for the future. As an added bonus the Northern Districts-contracted player also offers useful and lively fast-medium bowling.
Northland entered the second day's play at 18 without loss, and their quality batting lineup promptly got stuck into the Bay attack.
A 134-run partnership between former Black Cap James Marshall (82) and Bradley Kneebone (53) put the visitors to the Bay Oval in a strong position before the Bay bowlers picked up three reasonably cheap wickets before tea to hold the upper hand.
Resuming after tea at 227-5 with the game in the balance, the experienced ND and Wellington batsman Michael Parlane and the precociously talented Henry Cooper took the game away from the Bay with a superb, undefeated partnership to get through to 353-5 and take the first-innings points.
Cooper is the son of former Northern Districts and Northland batsman Barry Cooper, and he looks to have inherited his father's determination and stroke-making ability.
Bay skipper Boult was unlucky to be without Davey's accurate left-arm pacers after he broke down with a back injury after lunch, which will keep the talented teenager out of a Northern Districts development game this week.
But Boult was reasonably happy despite the loss of points dropped to Northland.
"I think it was just a good, hard day's cricket from both sides," he said. "It was a battle of attrition, one of those days that could have gone either way I think.
"It was hard to get people out and we had to bowl straight and try to contain and create pressure that way. We didn't have a slip most of the day so it wasn't a normal day's cricket.
"It was good to see some guys get 50s in our innings but no one went on which stopped us pushing on to 380 or 400, which I think was probably the difference at the end of the day.
"We just need a first innings or a draw against Counties and we have a guarantee of the challenge. We will take a lot from this game and head towards that Hawke Cup challenge if we get it."
Fergus Hickey Rosebowl 24/25 November
Bay of Plenty 352/8 declared (Brett Hampton 81, Bharat Popli 66, Scott Steward 58, Sean Davey 38no, C Anderson 21; James Marshall 2/44)
Northland 353/5 (James Marshall 82, Henry Cooper 77no, Michael Parlane 64no, Bradley Kneebone 53, Neil Parlane 43)