The difficulty of trying to dig out quality players on a pitch resembling State Highway 1 was brought home to the Bay of Plenty bowlers against Northland at the Bay Oval on Sunday.
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, and cup holders Hamilton do 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.
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 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 Bay all-rounder blasted 81 off just 88 balls to increase his side's momentum.
New Zealand under-19 player Sean Davey also dug in and was 38 not out, when Bay skipper Jono Boult made the declaration.
Watching Hampton bat is one of cricket's great pleasures so far this season. His natural style and ease of stroke-making marks him as a player of great promise for the future, and he also offers useful and lively fast-medium bowling.
Northland entered the second day's play at 18 without loss, and their batsmen 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 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, the experienced first class 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 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 is still reasonably happy despite the loss of points dropped to Northland.
"I think it was just a good, hard day's cricket from both sides.
"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," said Boult.
"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 didn't have a chance to go hard at them in the last hour," he said.
"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 lead towards that Hawke Cup challenge if we get it."
Fergus Hickey Rosebowl, Nov 24/25
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)
Northland took first innings points.