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Firebirds flame on with bat and ball to claim 2018 Ford Trophy

In a nailbiting Ford Trophy Grand Final in Dunedin, the Wellington Firebirds edged out the the Otago Volts home team for a three-wicket win.

By New Zealand Cricket

One of the great Ford Trophy Grand Finals went down to the final overs after a dramatic, see-sawing match. Both teams suffered top order collapses but fought back tenaciously with the bat, and bowled their hearts out in front of a spellbound University of Otago Oval crowd.

Spectators left the ground rubbing their eyes after a fascinating day of cricket, as the Firebirds broke Otago hearts with a tight win to claim the $45,000 first prize, personal pride and national glory championship.

Put in to bowl, the Firebirds made a brilliant start and had top qualifiers the Volts reeling at 37 for four after captain Hamish Bennett put himself on a hat-trick in the tenth over.

Jimmy Neesham had just taken his second catch, grabbing the relay fended off his teammate in the slips to remove young number four Nathan Smith for just five. Next ball, Shawn Hicks played on for a golden duck.

New man Anaru Kitchen took a two down the ground first ball to avert the hat-trick, denying Bennett the chance to be the first bowler in his team’s List A domestic history to achieve the rare feat.

It was a catastrophic over for the Volts.

Kitchen bowled off the very next ball to have the menacing Bennett sitting on 3-17 off 4.4 overs — and bowling to four slips in a one-day game with steam coming out of his nostrils.

First drop Neil Broom meanwhile stood in disbelief at the other end, on 16*, having just watched the scoreboard’s wickets column plummet from 37 for two to 39 for five in the space of four balls.

The opening pair had already made their way back to the sheds, with Mitch Renwick caught by a well executed grab from Neesham in the slips at the end of the first over, bowled by the Firebirds’ other form paceman Ollie Newton.

Newton had his second in the seventh over, Brad Wilson feathering to the keeper, with both teams having to wait nervously for the third umpire review.

Southern hearts were again in the throats as Peter Younghusband narrowly missed running out Broom in the 13th over as the sun streamed down on the Volts’ home ground.

An edging Broom fell to a brilliant dive from Firebirds keeper Johns just a few minutes later to have the Volts in serious peril at 55 for six. Josh Finnie joined Michael Rippon on 7* in the fourteenth over as the  two naturally attacking batsmen were forced to consolidate, but the loss of Finnie’s and then Andrew Fletcher’s wickets put the Firebirds with their hands on the Volts’ throat .

Michael  Rippon and new partner Christi Viljoen peeled a handful of boundaries off McPeake and Nofal to settle the nerves over the next overs.

This prompted Bennett to bring in leg-spinner Peter Younghusband in the 20th to keep the pressure on, with a double change seeing Neesham following in the 21st.

The new batting pair got the scoreboard ticking, posting the Volts’ 100 off 147 balls in the 25th as they headed towards a quick 50-stand for the eighth wicket.

It was the beginning of a courageous fightback that pulled the Volts right back into the game, under pressure, while the Firebirds progressively began to worry about how many runs this might cost them.

When Bennett sensed the pair was getting too comfortable, he brought himself back into the attack to try to up the pressure on Rippon, just as the Volts’ number seven was nearing a half ton, after an hour and half’s good work settling things down with Viljoen.

Rippon responded with an almost insolent ramp shot to the boundary to reach his half century off 72 balls.

The Volts pair kept trucking towards a 100-stand off 151 balls. Batting time was as important as runs at this stage, but with time, the runs came, an ebullient cheer going up from around the ground as the scoreboard registered the Volts’ 200 that had seemed so unlikely at 57 for seven.

Rippon was just 18 runs away from making a maiden century in a Final, and just one short of his List A career best of 83, when the Firebirds captain struck again to end the phenomenal partnership at 146. The previous eight-wicket record for the Volts, set in 2002/03, had been just 93.

That wicket ushered in Volts captain Duffy who joined Christi Viljoen, playing out of his skin on 69* as they looked to press on from 203 for eight. Viljoen had by then earned the highest score by any number nine batsman in the Ford Trophy’s history, beating Graham Napier’s 73* for the Central Stags in 2009 after having timed the ball to the rope for 10 boundaries and a six.

With no further loss, the Volts finished their 50 overs at 238, a miraculous achievement on both fronts from that nerve-jangling position of 57 for seven.

Bennett finished with 4-46 off his 10, including a maiden to take his wickets tally for the campaign to an outstanding 28. He is now the outright Wellington Firebirds’ record-holder, surpassing Glenn Jonas’s and Paul Hitchcock’s 24 in a season.

With early breakthroughs, the southerners could now contemplate putting the Firebirds under pressure with the ball, and they got two big wickets inside the first 10 overs to have their fiery foe at 44 for two.

Andrew Fletcher, the Firebirds’ record run-setter this season, was an early loss as he edged Duffy to Shawn Hicks in the third over. Kitchen then claimed Devon Conway in the third over of his first spell, Michael Bracewell joining Mike Pollard on 27* with 191 still required.

A little less than three overs later, the home crowd was on their feet again as Pollard was run out by Broom, after a brief consultation with the third umpire.

That brought Neesham to the wicket at 54 for three in the 13th.

The tension didn’t abate in the visitors’ viewing area with form allrounder Neesham coming off his career-best century in Auckland, bowled for just six runs after trying to play back against Rippon.

Michael Bracewell was caught a couple of overs further down the track to have the Firebirds at an eerily familiar score of 75 for five, and Rippon with 2-17 off his first three overs.

Peter Younghusband fought back with Malcolm Nofal, putting on a 118-run stand for the sixth wicket in their chase for 235.

Younghusband, who had contributed little with the bat this season until now, would reach 49 before Duffy’s return broke the impressive fightback, trapping him at 193 for six.

At this stage, the two innings were like a mirror image of each other.

The Firebirds had gained some momentum, needing just 42 more runs at slightly less than a run per ball from 7.4 overs as the match headed to a nerve-wracking finish.

Despite the loss of Nofal on 73, and the Volts young co-captain Duffy bowling his heart out to finish with 3-50, and Rippon with a well controlled 2-47 off his 10, the Firebirds’ tail was able to pace itself all the way to a hard-fought result as Newton hit the winning runs.

Their three-wicket championship victory with eight balls to spare was a thrilling way to claim a tense Ford Trophy Grand Final, and a deeply rewarding finish to a strong campaign through 12 games.

Lauchie Johns floated off the park unbeaten with 24* off 20 deliveries as the celebrations began, woith coach Glenn Pocknall watching on with pride in his first season as Ford Trophy coach of a champion side.

For the Volts, it was heartbreak, but they too could look back with pride on a season in which they played some outstanding cricket.

The two best teams had gone head to head and battled to the end for the right to be called Ford Trophy champions for 2018/19.