Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Six quick singles – Plunket Shield’s return to Eden

Return to the Garden. Courtesy of @sillymidoff
The battle of the north returned to Eden Park in the latest round of the Plunket Shield. Last season’s top two sides came into their second match after a winless previous round – Northern Districts’ were denied victory in a match they should have won; Auckland looking to build their confidence after a poor effort in a loss in Napier.

Northern Districts 208 (J Yovich 106, B Martin 4/43; 82.1 overs) and 196 (B Martin 3/63; 79.3 overs) lost to Auckland 392 (C Cachopa 82, B Martin 114, G Aldridge 3/74; 120.2 overs) and 14/0 (1.2 overs) by 10 wickets

1. Return to the Garden
A little over a year ago the Outer Oval, Eden Park 2, the Garden of Eden – call it what you will, was being used as a car park, a corporate hospitality venue and a communal toilet block for rugby’s greatest showpiece. It took a hammering as the All Blacks raised the William Webb Ellis Cup and crowds flocked for every available ticket to the oval ball’s showpiece tournament.

The match against Northern Districts was the first back at the ground since cricket was exiled in preparation for Rugby World Cup 2011, over 3 and a half years ago - the last contest at the ground was Auckland’s drawn State Championship match against Central Districts in late March 2009. Auckland amassed 662/5 in their first innings with Gareth Hopkins and Colin de Grandhomme striking centuries, while Jeet Raval, who has since departed for Central Districts, compiling a phenomenal 256. Along with the two Auckland mainstays, only Michael Bates and Reece Young remain from that side, joined by one of their opponents in that match, Mitchell McClenaghan.

The pitch may have been a little fresh, but it’s hard to blame the deck for poor top order application - a maiden Plunket Shield ton from a number eight batsman bears that out. By all accounts (including that of Northern Districts’ coach Grant Bradburn) the re-laid wicket offered few demons for those willing to take their time and play straight, setting their sights down the ground not via the T20 route. 

It’s a pity there is just a solitary tree, which in the height of summer will draw spectators like tow trucks to a car crash, but the old grandstands remain and there is plenty of grass areas to park a chair, a rug and a picnic.

However, the only real gripe about Auckland Cricket’s return to its spiritual home was overzealous security guards – that they’re even required at Plunket Shield cricket is questionable at best. Cricket’s beat cops would do well to remember they’re working in a sport that struggles to draw a crowd, being overly officious isn’t going to endear you to the few that walk through the gates. A pick-up game amongst a group of young kids, or spectators sitting “too close” to the boundary rope doesn’t upset the players, many of whom go out of their way to seek out those they see return season after season.

I would have loved to have ventured back to the Garden but the bride was taking Melbourne by storm and trying to sync the sleep, and mood, patterns of two ankle biters was a bridge too far for Daddy day care. But, they’ll be back and so will I – Eden Park is a special place. The changes may be noticeable but they don’t alter the fact that cricket is best watched live at the ground – there are few better ways to spend a lazy summer’s day.

2. A week is a long time in cricket
One of the most endearing features of our great game is the ability for sides, and individuals, to undergo a complete form reversal in the space of a few days – good or bad. Never has that been truer than in the effort of New Zealand’s two most northerly provinces.

Northern Districts went into their encounter with Auckland on the back of a strong batting display in a match their bowlers should have been able to win. Conversely, Auckland stumbled to a four wicket loss to Central Districts to kick off their campaign – the margin belies the difference between the two sides over the four days.

After a three day turnaround, spectators who had been at either of the previous matches would have been forgiven for thinking they were watching a different side. An Auckland side that looked down on confidence prevailed over a cock-a-hoop ND eleven by ten wickets inside three days. Only a fighting tenth wicket partnership, the second largest of the ND innings, meant they were able to avoid an innings defeat.

The Northern batsmen, so dominant against Otago, were brought back to earth with a thud, though only the efforts of Craig Cachopa and Bruce Martin saved Auckland from another poor first innings score. Last season’s champions will need to get their campaign back on track against CD at the Harry Barker Reserve in Gisborne or their confidence will continue to slide.

A strong result shouldn’t paper over the cracks at the top of the Auckland order – they can’t continue to rely on those in the bottom half to add a modicum of respectability after a poor start. The encouraging factor is the growing confidence of Auckland’s bowlers – Andre Adams’ influence as bowling coach looks to have been a positive one.

3. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks
Joey Yovich first donned the whites for Northern Districts in 1996/7 – at 35 and in his 17th season he shows no signs of slipping away from the game quietly. Where once older players were leaving our great game too early, their knowledge gained through endless summers lost, Yovich, Adams, Aldridge, Sinclair and a host of other domestic stalwarts are helping strengthen the next generation. 

But Yovich is different somehow. Over the past two summers, and approaching what should be a gentle march into his cricketing sunset years, the ND journeyman has rebuilt his game. After his 2010/11 season was curtailed through injury, the gentle giant gave the ball away completely the following season and remodelled himself as a top order batsman. Within two matches in the 2011/12 season Joey was opening for the Knights – it took him less than a year to transform from a quality allrounder to the rock at the top of a strong ND batting line up.

In 113 first class matches, Yovich is one good knock short of 4,500 domestic first class runs at an average a little over 30. An average of just 33 last season would have concerned him, but in four knocks to start the 2012/13 season he’s averaging a shade under 55 – long may it continue. If Northern are to get back on track, a lot will rest on Yovich’s consistency at the top.

He showed his worth to a struggling ND side when those around him struggled in Kingsland. His fifth century, a workmanlike 106, won’t be remembered as one of the classics but that wouldn’t have concerned his peers -  Yovich was head and shoulders ahead of his contemporaries.

Dropped in the final over before tea, Yovich ground out another 32 runs after the break before being the ninth man out. After nearly 80 overs at the crease, the ND innings ended less than 3 overs after Yovich’s dismissal. In a little over five hours the ND stalwart contributed more than half his side’s disappointing first innings total before top-scoring again in the second dig. If his team mates had followed his lead the result could have been very different.

4. Milestones
  • Graeme Aldridge reached 100 first class matches after debuting for Northern Districts in 1998/9. A few days short of his 35th birthday, Aldridge is a one province cricketer having plied his trade in Hamilton for 15 seasons. Barring injury, Aldridge will go past the magical 300 wicket mark before the end of the season – a deserved reward for one of the grafters of the New Zealand game. Given the New Zealand Cricket merry go-round he can consider himself unlucky not to have played test cricket for his country, his international honours confined to two ODIs and a solitary T20I against Zimbabwe away from home 13 months ago. Far less deserving cricketers will find a regular spot in the game’s top echelon. 
  • Bruce Martin struck his first Plunket Shield century, and highest first class score - a fighting 114. His only other first class hundred was for New Zealand A against their Sri Lankan counterparts in 2003/4. Prior to the start of the season he hadn’t gone past 50 for his second domestic province – Auckland. 
  • South African born Craig Cachopa struck his highest first class score, amassing 82 as he paired with Bruce Martin to resurrect Auckland’s flagging fortunes. After scoring his maiden 50 in a short stay in Wellington, Auckland will hope the young man lives up to the potential he showed at age-group level.  
  • Martin and Cachopa joined forces to set a new seventh wicket partnership for Auckland versus Northern Districts – 168. It was a full 111 clear of the next highest partnership in the match, Auckland’s eighth wicket between Martin and Michael Bates. The previous best was 136 by Tama Canning and Brooke Walker in Hamilton in 2004/5 season. However, the pair were still well short of the seventh wicket record against all comers, 224, set by Verdun Scott and Alexander Matheson against Canterbury in 1937/8. Both men represented New Zealand - Scott in both cricket and rugby league. 
  • The mercurial Lou Vincent celebrated his 34th birthday on the second day of match (11/11/2012). Vincent played his first first class match for Auckland against Otago on 10 March, 1998 as a 19 year old, joining his mate Andre Adams on debut.

5. The “other” slow left arm spinner
But for the emergence of New Zealand Cricket’s Harry Potter, Bruce Martin would have likely had a long international career. The 32 year old ex-Northern Districts spinner has suffered from playing in an era dominated by Daniel Vettori – only Sir Richard tops him on the test wickets list.

Martin’s game has moved to another level since his move up the Southern Motorway to turn out for the blue and whites. After debuting for ND in 1999/00, Martin took his many tools to Auckland for the 2010/11 season – two seasons later his new side owes him much.

With his side in danger of falling short of Northern’s paltry 208, Martin set about resurrecting their fortunes – his 114 was the difference between the sides. He added an Auckland record 168 with Craig Cachopa on his way to his highest first-class score, and first century in the Plunket Shield. Prior to this season, in 16 matches for Auckland, Martin’s highest score was 45 – in three knocks this summer he’s struck an unbeaten 56 against Central Districts and then backed it up with a face-saving century at home. In 107 first class matches, Martin’s first foray into triple figures was only his seventh time past 50.

“Bucko’s” dominance with the blade has transferred to his bowling returns – he topped the Auckland attack in each innings for match figures of 7/106. When Tim McIntosh struck the winning boundary, Martin sat atop the Plunket Shield wicket taking list with 12 wickets at a touch over 20, and was the highest Aucklander in the run scoring stakes. After two matches, he has the ninth highest aggregate in the Plunket Shield with 177 and is averaging 88.50 with the blade – the eight above him are all top order batsmen.

6. Brotherly competition
In just his fourth first class match, 20 year old Craig Cachopa struck a fine 82 – his highest Plunket Shield knock. The former Under 19 captain looks to have a long career ahead of him, and he’s got the genes to make a success of our great game. In the space of a week, he’s joined his two brothers in all going past 50 in domestic cricket – if anyone knows if that’s ever happened in New Zealand cricket before, I’d love to know.

Eldest brother Carl got the trio started with a dominant 179 not out against Auckland a week ago in Napier, before Bradley carried his bat in Friday night’s HRV Cup match for Canterbury against Wellington. His 67 not out at quicker than a run a ball gave the Wizards a fighting chance before the Jesse Ryder hurricane blew through the Cake Tin.

What money would you get on the three brothers eventually joining forces back in Auckland? The other provinces will hope the brotherly bond isn’t that strong.

Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. I’m enjoying writing about our domestic game, but I’d love your feedback – let me know what else you’d like to read about. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.

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