National cricket champions the Central Stags are back in business after a memorable first-class victory over arch-rivals Northern Districts in Mount Maunganui on Saturday.
The 74-run win means the Stags head into their first home game at Nelson's Saxton Oval, which begins on Friday against Canterbury, well placed at second on the table, looking to keep their momentum going against Canterbury in the last pre-Christmas round before the start of their white-ball season. First-class captain Greg Hay said the memories of Saturday afternoon at Bay Oval will remain special to his team.
"We've had a lot of injuries early this season, so to have gone in with two young debutant pace bowlers in our XI against a team that had Black Caps Trent Boult, Neil Wagner and BJ Watling and get the win was a fine achievement," Hay said.
Hay had elected not to enforce the follow-on after routing ND in the first innings, but ND had wrested back control after four wickets to Boult and Wagner's second-innings five-wicket-bag left ND with four sessions on a flat wicket in which to chase down a target of 374.
ND made a solid start with wickets few and far between for the Stags, opener Bharat Popli and BJ Watling guiding the hosts through to 259 for four to have their team on top with a session and a bit left to get just 88 runs for victory.
Bay of Plenty's Popli scored 1000 Plunket Shield runs in a season three years ago and looked on course for his fourth first-class century until he tried to hook a ball from Willem Ludick in the 97th over. Caught behind on 87, it was the start of a brilliant comeback from the Stags, who until then had kept fighting for little reward in the hot, windy conditions.
Hawke's Bay's part-time leg-spinner Brad Schmulian of the Havelock North club was playing his first match at Bay Oval since his astounding debut at the same ground two years earlier, in which he scored a New Zealand first-class record 203 on debut. This time he would be the surprise hero with the ball, getting a quick breakthrough when keeper-batsman Peter Bocock was caught behind off the first ball as Schmulian came on for an over before tea.
With the reputable Watling still at the crease and a tail that had come to their rescue with the bat in the first innings, ND remained a strong chance.
However, when first-innings century-maker George Worker held on to the first of his two well-judged catches that flew low to him at slip, the side were ecstatic.
Now ND's lower order was exposed and Schmulian promptly spun his way to a career-best four for 34 off 16.3 overs, the Stags having turned the riveting game on its head by running through the last five wickets in just 12 overs.
A victory which had also witnessed Worker's ninth first-class century (130) and Ajaz Patel's 50th Plunket Shield cap for the side netted the maximum 20 possible points for the team, as they bounced back from their tight opening-round loss in Auckland the previous week.
The hero of the final afternoon, Schmulian said he will forever enjoy playing at Mount Maunganui's Bay Oval.
"I feel quite comfortable at the ground, ironically, it feels almost like a home venue to me now and, having played a few games for the Stags, I felt quite comfortable in my role in this match.
"It was very special to help the lads get an important win, my first win here, too, as when I got my double century two summers ago we it was a drawn game."
Manawatu left-armer Ray Toole, who turned 22 on the first day of his debut match, finished with two wickets while 18-year-old 1.95 metre youngster Jarrod McKay of Nelson claimed a wicket in each innings and contributed two outstanding outfield catches, including a one-handed, left-handed leap that left Joe Walker stunned in the first innings.
The strongly built Toole impressed with his composure, and Hay said it was a pleasure to see both young men experience and make personal contributions to a special first-class victory in their very first match.
"There are players in this squad today who took a long time to get their first win in the bag. So it's a great way in which to introduce them to the rigours of first-class cricket, and exciting for the future of our side as well," Hay said.
Earlier this year Central Districts Cricket Association had brought Toole into the high performance winter training programme for the first time, after his consistency with the ball for Manawatū.
"I started training under [CDCA Emerging Talent strength & conditioning coach] Kendall Malcolm with strength and conditioning and I've also been working with Jacob Oram on the role-specific skills side. It's been very beneficial to me," Toole said.
The Central Stags will assemble in Nelson on Wednesday to prepare for Friday's start to the match against Canterbury.