Wicketkeeper Dane Cleaver has the best seat in the house — even better than the umpires some may argue.

That's because when Cleaver crouches behind the stumps he sees the magic his Central Districts Stags bowlers ritualistically conjure up as well as what opposition players struggle with on the batting crease.

"The thing about our bowlers is that they are very different," says the 18-year-old Manawatu cricketer who believes CD are blessed because their spittle shiners bring a blend of myriad skills to add variety to their attack.

"We're quite lucky that we have guys who can swing the ball in and swing it away, bounce bowlers, seam bowlers and, obviously, Jazzy does an amazing job bowling spin," he says of domestic cricket spin king Ajaz Patel who is the third highest wicket taker (20 wickets) this season but was the toast of the two previous shield campaigns.


Not only does it not let the batsmen settle but also keeps Cleaver on his toes, ensuring the bowlers stick to their plans, especially when they face Wellington Firebirds at Saxton Oval, Nelson, from today in their round-five Plunket Shield match.

Traditionally it's said how teams fare in the white-ball formats often dictates how the red-ball season will shape up for those left clutching the short straw, but this summer first-class cricket will help mould the mindset in the domestic arena.

Teams such as the Stags and Firebirds, who have started their campaigns with gusto, will find Big Mo in their corner although taking advantage of it is entirely in their hands.

"The flip side of the coin is that we're taking in momentum from the red ball into the white-ball cricket, whereas in the past we haven't had the wins on the board but obviously we've had confidence in our white-ball game so it's a pretty exciting thing."

No doubt the significance of the top-of-the-table clash between the William Young-captained CD and leaders Wellington isn't lost on either camp despite the grim forecast from New Zealand Cricket on making changes to the four-day cricket from next season to make it align with its economies of scale.

"It's an important game in that obviously we won't just take the momentum but also that top spot on the leaderboard into that second round," he says, revealing CD are mindful they haven't found themselves in such a purple patch for a while.

"Coming into the back-end of the season we'll also have something to play for, the Plunket Shield, which is very special so it'll be pretty cool."

The shield competition goes into recess after this round to accommodate a white-ball diet of Ford Trophy one-day and Burger King Super Smash T20 from December 10.

The first-class format will resume on March 1 when CD host Otago Volts at a revamped McLean Park, Napier, complete with its drop-in wicket.

But it's the now that matters as the Heinrich Malan-coached CD move on from the input of New Zealand internationals Ross Taylor, George Worker, Tom Bruce and Adam Milne who were involved in the jaw-dropping two-wicket victory over the Volts in Dunedin last week after taking in their stride the hosts' mammoth 513-7 total in their first dig to do the unthinkable.

Cleaver says it's always great to have the Black Caps around but it's time to go back to the boys who had done the job from game one.

Perhaps the joker in the pack is spurned former Black Caps batsman Jesse Ryder who has represented Wellington as well but, more importantly, finds himself in great form after missing out on four consecutive centuries by 11 runs two rounds ago.

But the faith in the Stags camp is fever pitch on the platform of a development structure where boys are dutifully evolving into men because of a belief system that didn't waver in its commitment.

"We're a close bunch of guys who are really starting to step up in using the experience they have gained in the past few years because the previous seasons have been a stepping stone for a lot of the young guys so we're now starting to see the fruit of all that hard work and it's really exciting."

You won't find this lot looking nervously across the park at what Wellington are bringing with their unblemished outright record.

"They've been playing some good cricket but at the end of the day they're just bowlers and batters who are key players," he says, emphasising CD's preoccupation is always with what they can control.

Cleaver has a "few good starts" but recognises the need to fulfil a portfolio at No 7, almost in the fashion of a senior backbencher, who scored a don't-argue 56 runs off 45 balls, including 11 boundaries, to take the guesswork out of chasing down Otago at University Oval.

"For me it's just about being the man who isn't out when we're winning the game. I've been in the position a few times where I've had a few knocks but haven't been there at the end so it would be nice to do that."

Cleaver, whose name has been mentioned over the years when national selectors have reached out for the pepper grinder on the dinner table, is among the top 10 batsmen for most runs at No 8 on 282 runs.

He sits above Northern Districts Knights gloveman Tim Seifert (244) although he has featured, through media mostly, as the critical salt on the table with Wellington's Tom Blundell not far behind.

Ryder leads the shield batting race on 557 runs, 11 ahead of Wellington veteran Michael Papps but gritty CD opener Greg Hay is fourth on 340 runs and rookie Brad Schmulian fifth (313) to lend credence to the Stags' depth and versatility.

Schmulian, who made way for Taylor, returns after a Furlong Cup stint. So does seamer Doug Bracewell, Manawatu batsman Mitchell Renwick and former Black Cap seamer Ben Wheeler.

Wellington batsman Luke Woodcock is sixth on 299 runs but Hamish Bennett and Logan van Beek spearhead the bowling attack as the pair lead the top wicket taker's race with 27 and 24 scalps, respectively.

However, Bennett was called in as replacement for injured Milne for the New Zealand A side's match against West Indies in Christchurch and former South African under-19 international Travis Muller coming into the equation.

Wellington have also lost Blundell to NZ A, with Lachie Johns reportedly likely to replace him although Papps has wicketkeeping experience.

The weather looks great but the wicket forecast draws laughter from Cleaver. He expects it to be a bowl-first scenario because it offers bowlers traction first up.


CD STAGS: Greg Hay, Mitchell Renwick, Brad Schmulian, William Young (c), Jesse Ryder, Dane Cleaver (wk), Doug Bracewell, Ajaz Patel, Navin Patel, Blair Tickner, Ryan Watson, Ben Wheeler.
Coach: Heinrich Malan.

WELLINGTON FIREBIRDS: Michael Papps, Luke Woodcock, Stephen Murdoch, Michael Bracewell (c), Lachie Johns (wk), Fraser Colson, Logan van Beek, Jeetan Patel, Ollie Newton, Iain McPeake, Travis Muller, Matt Taylor.
Coach: Bruce Edgar.