Cricket: Auckland crowned Plunket Shield champions

By Niall Anderson

Michael Guptill-Bunce led from the front for Auckland. Photo / Getty
Michael Guptill-Bunce led from the front for Auckland. Photo / Getty

After a seven year hiatus, the Plunket Shield is heading back to Auckland.

The Mark O'Donnell-coached side wrapped up the title with a round to spare after drawing with second-placed Wellington at the Basin Reserve yesterday.

The Shield will be placed next to the Twenty 20 title in the Auckland cricket trophy cabinet, capping off a successful season for a side which utilised impressive depth throughout the campaign.

Only Wellington and Canterbury had a chance to catch Auckland coming into the round, but neither side could successfully execute difficult fourth innings run-chases.

Auckland set Wellington a mammoth 515 to win on the final day, while Canterbury required 283 in 46 overs to beat Northern Districts.

After brief flourishes, both sides eventually waved the white flag, playing out draws and handing the Shield to the deserving Aucklanders.

Canterbury's effort was slightly perplexing, surrendering after losing five early wickets in their run chase.

Despite a win being required to keep their title hopes alive, capable batsmen Todd Astle (nine from 131 balls) and Cameron Fletcher (51 scoreless deliveries) shut up shop for a draw to sustain Canterbury's third place on the ladder.

A classy 92 from Northern Districts run-machine Bharat Popli was the highlight of the day, with Popli moving into fourth on the all-time record list for runs in a Plunket Shield season with 1060 - just three runs behind Jeff Crowe in third.

The other game of the round also ended in a draw, with Otago finishing at 305-8 after being set 343 to win by Central Districts.

Opener Ryan Duffy made his maiden century for Otago with 104, while CD spinner Ajaz Patel continued his strong season with four wickets.

The trio of draws were good enough for Auckland, with Wellington finishing at 308-8 in their helpless quest for a record chase.

Auckland's title has come about thanks to an array of contributors throughout the year, with their veterans mixing well with untested and promising players to create an impressive squad balance.

Their batting attack has been led by 26-year-old Michael Guptill-Bunce, who had played just six Plunket Shield games before this season, and former New Zealand Under-19 skipper Robert O'Donnell who delivered on his potential with a breakout season.

Opener Jeet Raval fought through a horror mid-season run to hold an average above 50, while all-rounders Colin De Grandhomme and Donovan Grobbelaar pitched in with big-hitting cameos throughout the season.

De Grandhomme and Grobbelaar also contributed with the ball for a bowling attack spearheaded by seamer Lachie Ferguson and leg-spinner Tarun Nethula.

With rivals crumbling around them under the weight of international call-ups and injury tolls, O'Donnell could call upon Michael Bates, Mitchell McClenaghan, Matt Quinn and even Australian seamer Nathan McAndrew to rotate a fresh and dangerous bowling strikeforce.

That depth proved critical as the summer workload piled up - Auckland's consistency showing through by winning six games and drawing three.

Their chance at an unbeaten Plunket Shield season will be tested next Wednesday, as they take on Central to put a bow on their title triumph.

- NZ Herald

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