Momentum is everything in T20 cricket.
The Northern Knights had it, until the Central Stags regained it and beat the defending champions by five wickets in a thrilling Burger King Super Smash T20 at Bay Oval last night.With one ball remaining in the 12th over of the Stags innings, the momentum was all with the home team.
After making a useful 156/8 batting first, some classy slow bowling from Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi was strangling the life out of the Stags' run chase. The team in green was 65/4, still needing 92 to win but with only 49 balls left.
Then Santner, who failed with the bat but bowled beautifully in his second match back from a serious leg injury, departed from his usual flat trajectory and flighted one up to Stags captain Tom Bruce. The big right-hander's eyes lit up and the former T20 international drove it straight onto the bank under the sight screen for six, one of 13 big hits on the night that cleared the rope.
If that one shot didn't change the momentum of the match, then the next over at the same Mauao end from Stags seamer Darryl Mitchell most certainly did.
After Doug Bracewell hit the second ball over midwicket for six then ran a single to put Bruce back on strike, the Stags captain unleashed another brilliant straight hit onto the black polythene running down the bank under the sight screen.
The next ball was ferociously square cut for four. Eighteen off the Mitchell over and the Stags were starting to believe.
"It was just play it as it comes," Bruce said afterwards.
"Obviously Darryl's over was a catalyst to kick things off. We knew that Mitch (Santner) and Ish (Sodhi) were going to be a class act, so if we could get through their early overs, we knew we could probably capitalise at the back end."
Santner came back on at the railway end for the 15th over of the innings and Bruce swept him for yet another six. But Bracewell miscued the fourth ball, Knights captain Dean Brownlie took the skier and the Stags were 105 for 5, still 52 from victory with 31 balls left.
But Bruce found a wonderful partner in the experienced Kieran Noema-Barnett who nudged a few singles, nicked a four and did his best to keep Bruce on strike for the run to the finish line.
The big man was imperious as a Stags win went from unlikely to possible, then to probable and finally to certain. In the 17th over, there was a huge six off Sodhi over mid-wicket. In the 19th came a leg glance off Brett Randall followed by a spectacular overhead smash onto the bank at midwicket again.
By then the job was almost done and it was duly finished two balls into the 20th over. The 27-year-old Bruce ending up 88 not out from 52 balls, an outstanding knock including six fours and five sixes, giving the Stags the best possible start to the new Super Smash campaign.
"It's always nice to start the competition well. They trounced us in the final last year and that was tough to take, but the boys have started this campaign really well."
The Knights must have wondered what happened. The playing-through champions were seemingly in control after Tim Seifert had celebrated his selection for the Black Caps ODI squad with a fine 55 from 42 balls at the top of the order.
He was out on the last ball of the 14th over before Daniel Flynn anchored the latter part of the Knights' innings with 27 from 17 balls. With the pitch playing on the slow side and occasionally keeping low, the total of 156/8 seemed more than competitive.
When the Stags slumped to 41/4 in the eighth over, and with class players like George Worker, Dane Cleaver and Will Young all dismissed, the Knights looked to be on track for an early finish until Bruce took control.
"There's not too many players in New Zealand who could do that," Knights coach Gareth Hopkins said afterwards.
"Soak up that pressure from two world-class spinners, turn it round with the right tempo, playing the right shots and then it was perfectly weighted through to the end. He played brilliantly. We were beaten by him."
While Hopkins conceded the over from Darryl Mitchell changed the course of the match, he defended his captain's decision to take Santner off after three parsimonious overs.
"When you have two world-class spinners like Santner and Sodhi you can use them up too early and have nothing left. Dean was hedging his bets and Darryl has been bowling really, really well this year. It was just good batting. You miss slightly to a guy like Tom Bruce and he has the power to hurt you."
The Knights, now with a 1-1 record in the Super Smash, next play the Otago Volts in Alexandra on Sunday.
There was some satisfaction for Northern Districts fans earlier in the day as the Spirit comfortably beat the Central Hinds by five wickets in the first match of the double header. The Spirit reached their target of 114 with seven balls left to post their second win of the season from seven matches.
Knights 156/8 in 20 overs (T Seifert 55, B Tickner 3/32), Stags 157/7 in 19.2 overs (T Bruce 88 not out, S Kuggeleijn 2/24). Stags win by 5 wickets.
Hinds 113/7 in 20 overs (J Watkin 27, E Richardson 2/17, K Anderson 2/17), Spirit 114/5 in 18.5 overs (C Gurrey 36, R Mair 2/14). Spirit win by 5 wickets.