The Auckland Aces rekindled their hopes of making the HRV Cup playoff with a handsome 28-run triumph over arch rivals the SKYCITY Northern Knights at Mount Maunganui this evening.
The Knights had suffered a pre-match blow with the loss of regular captain Scott Styris, who injured his hamstring bowling for the Hobart Hurricanes yesterday evening in Australia's Big Bash League. Stand-in skipper James Marshall won the toss, asked the Aces to bat first in overcast conditions and was pleased to have both opening batsmen back in the shed by the sixth over.
Brent Arnel had made the early breakthrough, Lou Vincent caught cheaply at short cover by Corey Anderson, before Phil Mustard was lbw in Anderson's first over with the visitors 39 for two.
But tenacious Aces skipper Gareth Hopkins (57 off 45) steadied the ship, assisted by a crisp Anaru Kitchen who was very nearly caught off his first ball, but went on to produce a handy 27 runs from 21 balls until he was finally caught by a diving sprawl in the deep - Corey Anderson again, this time off left-arm spinner Anton Devcich.
Neither umpire had seen the catch clearly, leading to the unusual scenario of a protracted conference with the players themselves, before the fateful finger was finally raised. The Knights' fortune didn’t hold for long, however, with new batsman Colin de Grandhomme in blistering form as he galloped to his highest HRV Cup score, an unbeaten 66 from 30 balls - having survived a dropped chance off Bradley Scott in the 19th over immediately after posting his 50.
De Grandhomme's 80-run stand with Hopkins saw them take back firm control of the innings, and despite a small flurry of wickets at the death the Aces could be satisfied with their total of 180 for five, as shower clouds began drifting over the ground and the conditions became more difficult.
The home batsmen struggled to get their chase going against the Aces' quality attack, with internationals Kyle Mills and Michael Bates exerting maximum pressure. Two down at the halfway mark with the lingering threat of rain and a Duckworth-Lewis chart already in the hands of the coach, the Knights urgently needed to lift their run rate and launched into Kitchen, peeling 20 runs from the 15th over - including sixes to both Steven Croft (who top-scored for his team with 48) and Brad Wilson (39), their 50 partnership up in 44 balls.
But sustained control from the remainder of the Aces' attack saw them snuff out the Knights' remote chances of victory in the closing overs, Mills removing the dangerous Croft early in the penultimate over and fellow English pro James Foster accounted for by a spectacular diving catch behind the wicket from Hopkins. To add injury to insult, Knights' all-rounder Anderson was also whisked off for x-rays of his wrist, and didn't take part with the bat.
It was the fourth-placed Aces' first win in five games and the defending champions now have an ideal run home, needing to rack up back-end victories to squeeze their way into the top three. Just three regular competition games remain for them, the next against cellar-dwellers the Devon Hotel Central Stags in New Plymouth on Wednesday, followed by the struggling Canterbury Wizards and a second crack at the Stags.
The third-placed Knights, meanwhile, take on the Wizards in Hamilton on Friday night, while the second-ranked HELL Wellington Firebirds meet frontrunners the Otago Volts earlier that afternoon in Wellington in a top-of-the-table clash.