AUCKLAND v C DISTRICTS
Eden Park, tomorrow
Auckland have good reason to keep their foot down in the final match in the first-class championship against Central Districts, starting at Eden Park tomorrow.
Auckland go into the match on top of the State Championship table and certain to play CD again in the final, starting next weekend at Lincoln.
CD are second, four points behind Auckland, so this has the feel of a dress rehearsal.
Unless CD win the match outright, Auckland will finish top of the round-robin.
That is significant as it will mean CD must win the five-day final to claim the championship. A draw would mean the round-robin leaders win the title.
But Auckland's acting coach Paul Strang is clear about what he wants from this weekend's match.
"Winning and going down [to Lincoln] as leaders is a key element. It's important to get a mental edge and go as leaders," he said.
"And our momentum and confidence are good at the moment."
Strang and former New Zealand opener Matt Horne took over after the domestic Twenty20 competition at the start of this month, replacing Mark O'Donnell, who joined the New Zealand team backroom staff.
Since then, Auckland have won three successive games, beating Northern Districts by 22 runs, Otago by an innings and 84 runs and ND again by an innings and 16 runs.
They have test bowler Kyle Mills back for tomorrow's match, although Strang pointed out they don't know how long he can play if he's required to rejoin the national squad for the third test against India starting in Wellington next Friday.
Replacing O'Donnell might have been tricky but Strang, 38, the former Zimbabwe legspinning allrounder, had an advantage over an outsider coming in.
He had been working for Auckland for about nine months through the province's high-performance programme, and is familiar with several players, including Rob Nicol, Colin de Grandhomme, Reece Young and Martin Guptill.
"To be fair, the players have adjusted well to changing jockeys in mid-season," Strang said,
He praised O'Donnell, who had established "pretty good structures and a decent work ethic" when he and Horne - former test adversaries about 10 years ago - took charge.
Strang arrived in New Zealand about five years ago, joined East Coast Bays and marked out his bowling run-up for the final time only last season. He finished top of the club cricketer of the year standings in three of four seasons.
He played 24 tests, for 70 wickets at 36.02 - including eight for 109 against New Zealand at Bulawayo in 2000 - and 95 ODIs produced 96 wickets at 33.05. And there was a test century against Pakistan in 1996 for good measure.
He will always be proud of being part of Zimbabwe's finest test era.
Batsmen like Grant and Andy Flower, Murray Goodwin, Neil Johnson and Alistair Campbell, and bowlers including Heath Streak and himself meant, in Strang's words, "we were a banana skin, people didn't want to play against us".
He left Zimbabwe seven years ago when, as he put it, "it was untenable for me to play club cricket". It's not a topic he likes to dwell on. He did time in English county cricket, including playing under New Zealand selector John Wright at Kent, before settling with his family in Auckland.
In two other meaningless final-round championship games tomorrow, Canterbury host Otago and Northern Districts play Wellington in Whangarei.
Points: Auckland 35, CD 31, Wellington 22, ND 10, Otago 6, Canterbury 4.
AUCKLAND v C DISTRICTS:
Auckland: Richard Jones (c), Jeet Raval, Reece Young, Anaru Kitchen, Rob Nicol, Gareth Hopkins, Colin de Grandhomme, Kyle Mills, Michael Bates, Andrew de Boorder, Lance Shaw, Daryl Tuffey.