The plot thickened in the HRV Cup tonight with the SKYCITY Northern Knights - third on the table heading into this match - falling to the Canterbury Wizards at Seddon Park.
The result keeps the Wizards in the mathematical race for the finals, while the frantic, eight-run loss has left the Knights desperate to win their last-round duel with the Wellington Firebirds on Sunday.
The Wizards, batting first after winning the toss on a humid Hamilton evening, gave themselves every chance by pouring on their highest ever T20 total against the Knights, Brendon Diamanti and captain Tom Latham combining in a record 70-run stand against the Knights for the 5th wicket.
But the innings was also an erratic affair. For the home team Brent Arnel produced his career-best HRV Cup performance with 4-22 off his four, the third-best figures by any bowler this season; while Knights spinners Jono Boult and Anton Devcich put the squeeze on Canterbury through the middle of their assault, two quick wickets falling in Boult's third over when Andy Ellis was caught then Brad Cachopa stranded out of his crease.
However, an expensive over from Anurag Verma, 26 runs flying off it, including three consecutive sixes from Latham, allowed the Cantabrians to haul themselves straight back on track for a competitive total. Despite a flurry of late wickets Canterbury would have been satisfied their 184/8 was defendable.
The injury-hit Northern Knights had sprung a major pre-match surprise by selecting Daryl Tuffey, who had retired from domestic cricket just before the start of the season for business reasons, after turning out for the Auckland Aces one last time in a preseason practice Twenty20 against the Knights.
Former BLACKCAP Tuffey readily answered their distress call after they had lost all-rounders Scott Styris (tweaked hamstring) and Corey Anderson (broken thumb) to injury in successive matches.
Although Tuffey had been playing competitive Grade cricket in Sydney, his unexpected return to the HRV Cup was no fairytale, going for 23 off his first two overs before picking up Diamanti's wicket in the closing stages.
The deceptive Ronnie Hira was the star of the Wizards' attack, bowling English pro Steven Croft with his first ball and then cleaning out polished opener Brad Wilson, who had crunched 36 off 29 balls, with the first delivery of his second over. Hira would finish with three for 16 off his four, yet the match was still in the balance at the three-quarters mark with the team's respective scores almost matching each other.
But the Knights lost wickets too regularly through the last phase until they were left needing a seemingly unlikely 26 off the last over while eight wickets down.
It was then that Verma did his best to atone for his errant over in the first innings, giving the full flourish to Logan van Beek. He swatted two streaky fours and attempted a bold scoop, and, when he did connect, thumped a monstrous six into the member's stand to keep the nervous Knights hanging on by a fingernail.
With two balls to go they needed 12 runs, Verma gave it the full flourish yet again only to see the ball land a cruel metre inside the boundary rope. Ironically he would ultimately take 26 off the last over - the same number of runs that he had conceded in his tough over with the ball.
The Knights now head to Wellington for Sunday's decisive encounter. The winner will book a spot in the preliminary final with the Volts meanwhile already assured of a home final and set to play Australian pace legend Brett Lee in their next game for good measure. The loser will be vulnerable to a late charge from the Auckland Aces or Canterbury Wizards, either of whom could yet steal a place in the preliminary-final if they win both their remaining matches at a very good clip.
The Wizards and Aces will battle it out for that chance when they play each other in Rangiora on Sunday, while the high-flying Volts meet the cellar-dwelling Devon Hotel Central Stags at Pukekura Park the same day.
Otago Volts – 28
Wellington Firebirds – 20
Northern Knights – 20
Auckland Aces – 12
Canterbury Wizards – 12
Central Stags - 8