Defending champions the Auckland Aces lost their way at Eden Park as the HELL Wellington Firebirds proved they can back up after all, serving up the Aces' second defeat in as many games.
Moreover, the Firebirds once again showed that their line-up is not just the Jesse Ryder show.
Ryder performed, make no mistake about that. Top-scoring for the Firebirds with 60 off 37 balls before he was beaten by impressive young pace bowler Matt Quinn, the burly opener patiently waited as an aggressive Michael Papps did the lion's share of the early scoring before unleashing himself in the fifth over by pounding 20 runs off Kyle Mills, including two sixes.
While Ryder's raw hitting power is never in question, he impressed with the finesse of his shots and, after Papps was dismissed for a barnstorming 38, ensured the Wellington hundred was posted by the midway mark, his 50 coming from just 29 deliveries.
By constrast, the unsettled Auckland Aces could barely get close to their required run rate of 9.20 through the first half of their innings, with pressure pouring onto import opener Phil Mustard from the beginning. Mustard had seen his opening partner Lou Vincent recklessly run out, going for a tight single off the very first delivery of the reply, the Aces chasing 185 on Eden Park's number one ground.
Playing his first game of the season for the Firebirds, fellow English import Dmitri Mascarenhas made Mustard's life particularly difficult before left-arm spinner Mark Houghton, who had opened the innings well, came back to bowl a brilliant ninth over - a rare T20 wicket maiden in which he sent Anaru Kitchen back to base camp. He was assisted in the dismissal by Scott Kuggeleijn's superb catching on the boundary, and with Kuggeleijn himself picking up Colin de Grandhomme for a song in the following over, at 58/4 and struggling to get the ball through the field the Aces appeared to have lost their mojo.
But Mustard was grimly hanging on and, as the three-quarters mark loomed, with the required run rate rising over 14, found his second wind to resuscitate the innings in spectacular fashion.
Firebirds captain Grant Elliott's decision to bowl himself backfired when he was carved for 17; earlier Luke Woodcock had been punished for 20 off his. The Aces finally were putting pressure back on the visitors and, by the final over, needing 21 to win, Phil Mustard was within sight of a maiden T20 hundred, carrying his bat and potentially rocking up as the match hero after all.
But it was not to be. Though he was able to pull the first ball of the final over for 6, young express bowler Kuggeleijn kept his composure and restricted Mustard and his final batting partner Donovan Grobbelaar to singles for the remainder of proceedings, having the last laugh with an unplayable yorker as the Aces went down by 10 runs.
Mustard's consolation prize was his highest T20 score of 97 not out off 66 balls, but the Aces will be frustrated at their uncharacteristic loss of momentum both in the match and in the competition as a whole.
Earlier, Andre Adams had at least shown he had recovered from the beating he received at the hands of Scott Styris in the previous loss, having removed Luke Ronchi and Grant Elliott in the 16th over to set up a hat-trick. Following up with a bouncer to Mascarenhas showed he cared more for dot balls, the over went for just one run. He finished his full complement with 4-25, almost emulating the 4-20 he took against the Wizards in round two.
The Firebirds will be delighted with their team effort, having recovered quickly from the early loss of Tamim Iqbal who slogged out in the first over of the game. Papps finished with a quickfire 38, Ronchi contributed his best yet of the competition with 43 off 27 and Mascarenhas kept the score moving at the death with 19 off 14, helping to further demoralise Mills by slamming 11 off the last over.
The timely confidence boost will help prep the resurgent Firebirds for their away match against the top of the table SKYCITY Northern Knights at Mount Maunganui on New Year's Day, while the Aces must now pick themselves up to beat the handy SBS Bank Otago Volts on New Year's Eve. With tonight's win, the Firebirds have drawn level with the Knights on points, however the Knights have a superior net run rate and a game in hand.
Full scorecard: http://scoring.blackcaps.co.nz/livescoring/match1607/scorecard.aspx
Northern Knights- 16
Wellington Firebirds - 16
Otago Volts - 12
Auckland Aces - 8
Canterbury Wizards - 0
Central Stags - 0
Full points table: http://www.blackcaps.co.nz/domestic/points-table/137/hrv-cup.aspx