The differences in preparation between association team's chosen out of Coastal Challenge club cricket and their larger neighbours in the Central Districts region was clear at the Chapple Cup in Napier over the weekend.
Nonetheless, Unreal Grass Wicket Wanganui were encouraged after they finished the three day tournament with both a 50 over and Twenty20 victory over upcoming Furlong Cup opponent Wairarapa, who were in the same boat as them in terms of buildup, while they gave a decent effort in defeat for a Sunday T20 slog with Taranaki.
The only disappointment was not following up their initial Friday success, after a very disappointing batting effort in a heavy loss to Manawatu on Saturday.
Wanganui started the campaign with a solid four wicket win over Wairarapa, which had the best performance by the top three batsmen as a group in some time, led by Greg Smith's superb 118 not out from 110 balls.
Earlier, Wanganui had restricted Wairarapa to 253-6, which compared to the 300-plus scores being put up in the other matches at Nelson Park, was a target the chasing team could handle.
Opener Stefan Hook looked to anchor Wairarapa and bat through, with 64 from 128 balls, while key man Brock Price (96 from 97 balls) looked to carry their team over the 200 mark heading into the last 10 overs.
However, Connor O'Leary (5-42) stepped up after he had removed two top order wickets cheaply to dismiss both set batsmen in the 41st and 44th over, and while Patrick Gluck (21 not out) looked to led his team through to the finish, Wairarapa were at least 20 runs shy of a good score in the conditions.
"250 on those pitches, we thought was about par," said Wanganui skipper Dominic Lock.
"Looking at the other scores, it was the lowest of the day - nothing to get upset about."
Wanganui's batting has nonethless been brittle up until now, but the top order responded to have the side flying at 200-1 in the 31st over.
Veteran Chris Stewart (32) anchored his end, and Smith played a positive, chance-less innings, ultimately striking 13 boundaries and three sixes.
After Stewart departed at 121-1 in the 19th over, Akhil Kumar (47 from 43) came in and elevated the scoring even further, in sight of that long awaited first 50 for Wanganui, until accidently distracting himself.
"The ball before [my dismissal] I hit the team bus window," he said.
Manager Andrew Lock recalled: "It went like a tracer, a low six. It made a hell of a noise, small back window – bang."
Kumar was caught off the next delivery at 201-2, and that started a rot where only Akash Gill (10) was getting set, but then he along with Sam Sherriff, Dominic Lock, and Matthew Simes all departed in single figures.
Fortunately, Smith had not lost his touch, raising roughly 10-run partnerships with each of his cheaply dismissed team mates for Wanganui to click over their target in the 42nd over, slightly less impressively than they had intended.
"We knew we were going to get there, it was more to share it around," Andrew Lock joked.
"You still have to work away, though. We bat so low down [the order], so there was never a worry."
Those proved to be famous last words on the Saturday with Manawatu, who had Wanganui in-and-out of the game in less than 54 overs in total for an eight wicket hiding.
This time, the Wanganui top three had all fallen by the seventh over to to Carlos Jensen (3-20), and it was a steady procession from there, with Wanganui down to the tail at 56-7 in the 19th over.
"Just did not bat well, all the way down," said Andrew Lock.
"They were trying to be positive, but not making the right decisions."
Simes (16 not out) reverted to his stonewall tactics, seeing off 75 balls, while for the three other batsmen dismissed in the teens – Gill, Sherriff and player-coach Vikum Sanjaya – there was at least a sign that maybe Sherriff (16 off 20) was turning a corner on his slump.
Manawatu bowlers Arana Noema-Barnett (2-19), Brad Fulton (2-21) and Hayden Hill (2-12) all shared the spoils.
In reply to the meagre 103 all out, Manawatu openers Mason Hughes (50 off 36) and Noema-Barnett (38) went on the attack, with Hughes the aggressor, to rapidly raise up 77 runs by the 13th over before Noema-Barnett was run out.
Although Hughes got out right after raising his bat, there were only two handfuls of runs left to end Manawatu's chase in an embarrassing 18 overs.
"There was not a lot of pressure on them, put it that way," said Andrew Lock.
So to Sunday and in a change of format from previous years, it was decided the beaten four teams from Saturday would play each other in a Twenty20 mini-tournament.
Wanganui found themselves drawn against a Taranaki side hungry for payback from the shock Furlong Cup upset in New Plymouth back in January, which saw the Taranaki coach verbally tear strips off his team in the dressing room, and the visitors gifted the team beers from their solemn hosts.
"They hadn't had the best of tournaments to that date too, they weren't a happy team," Andrew Lock said.
On the short boundary field at the park, Taranaki opener Joshua Borrell (127 off 64) went ballistic in the opening overs, supported by Dean Robinson (18) and Shaun Sullivan (32 from 18) as their team had run up a fearsome 183 by the 17th over when Borrell finally went off Sanjaya (2-38).
Facing a near impossible 11.65 run rate before they even started from 233-5, Wanganui experimented with their order, moving their Sri Lankan T20 International Sanjaya (29 from 15) up to No3 ahead of the young attackers Kumar (18 from 13) and Gill (38 from 24).
It actually worked quite well, Wanganui batting out to 198-9 at the end of their overs for a 35 run loss, with perhaps the most encouraging sign being Sherriff, who came in down the order with no pressure to succeed and smacked 40 off 17 balls, with three fours and three sixes, sharing a good partnership with Simes (18 not out).
"Sam hit it really well, and he came off with a smile," said Andrew Lock.
And so to a rematch with Wairarapa, and Wanganui got good service from both the batting department, initially, and the bowlers, eventually, to secure a 43 run win.
Again, the top order of Stewart (38 from 17), Smith (41 from 22) and Sanjaya (29 from 11) went all out on the short boundaries to raise 96-3 by the eighth over.
Although bowler Hugo Wakeling (2-28) got a couple of cheap wickets, Gill (51 not out from 34) just carried on and this time it was Dominic Lock who got his groove back – staying with Gill to score 40 not out from 26 balls.
Wanganui figured 214-5 was pretty safe, but Wairarapa again attacked through their top order of John Mckenzie (29) Jack Forrester (22) and the in-form Price (54).
"I was a little bit worried, but as soon as they lost a couple of wickets, their tail was long," said Andrew Lock.
After the fielding restrictions lifted in the sixth over, Wanganui pulled Wairarapa back, with Price falling in the 13th over and the other leading hope Gus Borren (26) losing his stumps in the next over.
Again, O'Leary (3-37) proved the key man, well backed by the other four bowlers as they all took wickets and dismissed Wairarapa with two balls remaining in the innings.
Andrew Lock hoped the two wins, leading into the away game in Masterton in a fortnight's time, will be the confidence boost the side needs.
"It's been real difficult, with a season that's only played a few weeks of club cricket, to go away and play the best of Central Districts.
"I spoke to Wairarapa and they are the same, playing in the Coastal Challenge with us."
Wairarapa 253-6 (B Price 96, S Hook 64, P Gluck 21no; C O'Leary 5-42) lost to Wanganui 256-6 (G Smith 118no, A Kumar 47, C Stewart 32; S Hook 2-40, Q Childs 2-53) by four wickets.
Wanganui 103 (M Simes 16no; C Jensen 3-20, Hayden Hill 2-12, A Noema-Barnett 2-19, Brad Fulton 2-21) lost to Manawatu 107-2 (M Hughes 50, A Noema-Barnett 38) by eight wickets.
Twenty20: Taranaki 233-5 (J Borrell 127, S Sullivan 32, D Robinson 18, A Keene 18; V Sanjaya 2-38) bt Wanganui 198-9 (S Sherriff 40, A Gill 38, V Sanjaya 29, A Kumar 18, M Simes 18no; E Keller 3-35, D Mills 3-38, M Thomas 2-43) by 35 runs.
Twenty20: Wanganui 214-5 (A Gill 51no, G Smith 41, D Lock 40no, C Stewart 38, V Sanjaya 29; H Wakeling 2-28, E Childs 2-64) bt Wairarapa 171 (B Price 54, J Mckenzie 29, G Borren 26, J Forrester 22; C O'Leary 3-37, S Sherriff 2-22, A Gill 2-30) by 43 runs.