The Central Stags cricketers are catching up on early Plunket Shield leaders the Wellington Firebirds, remaining in second spot after the opening three rounds but closing the gap to 15 points.
With five rounds remaining, 20 points available per round and the Stags and Firebirds set to play each other twice in the back end of the championship, which will resume in late February, it's game on in the quest for the first Plunket Shield three-peat in 80 years.
Despite a raft of pre-season injuries - leading to an injury bench full of seasoned performers - and four new faces in the squad over the past three weeks, the Stags have survived with a tight first-up loss against the Auckland Aces, a dramatic outright win against Northern Districts in a tough match at the Mount, and a draw with maximum bowling points salvaged from a weather-hit match at Nelson's Saxton Oval against Canterbury which ended yesterday.
Attention now turns to the Ford Trophy, with the start of the white-ball season from 11am on Sunday at Palmerston North's Fitzherbert Park. The Stags will be meeting Canterbury again in the first round, a side they beat at the same venue two years ago.
Canterbury will be looking forward to resting their legs after the Stags forced them to run around the field for the final two days of the third-round Plunket Shield match, in between numerous weather and light interruptions that cost valuable time in the contest.
Having won the toss and bowled on a green deck, Canterbury held the advantage on the first day, but the Stags fought back with the ball, then comfortably reeled in Canterbury's modest lead thanks largely to a determined 145-run partnership for the third wicket between Whanganui's Ben Smith and Hawke's Bay's Brad Schmulian.
After the pair fell in consecutive overs yesterday afternoon, the remainder of the Stags' order ensured the side did not have to bowl again as time dwindled away in the last four-dayer of 2019, 287 for nine with an overall lead of 239 when the captains shook hands for the draw late on the final afternoon.
The Stags' top runscorer from the opening three rounds has been Schmulian, with an aggregate of 256 at 51.20 (three half centuries), while first change bowler Willem Ludick of Nelson, who produced a career-best 4-51 with the ball at Saxton, is in the top three bowlers nationally with 13 wickets at just 14.53. Wairarapa's Seth Rance is not far behind in fifth spot with 11 at 25.09.
The Stags' round one Ford Trophy squad for Sunday will be named following the conclusion of the two Central Districts A matches, which will be played against Northern Districts A in Taupo today and tomorrow.
The CD A team is:
Ma'ara Ave, Bayley Wiggins, Christian Leopard, Josh Clarkson, Kieran Noema-Barnett, Akash Gill, Ryan Watson, Felix Murray, Jayden Lennox, Fraser Bartholomew, Jack Harris, Ray Toole (tomorrow).