A fascinating duel that went down to the last two balls of the day has seen the HELL Wellington Firebirds narrowly beat the SKYCITY Northern Knights in the race for the right to host the HRV Cup Preliminary Final.
After the Firebirds won the toss - and without his usual ballistic batting partner Tamim Iqbal, Jesse Ryder yet again laid the foundation for a Wellington victory with a classy unbeaten 85 off 65 balls.
But while the Knights' bowling unit had to settle for just one wicket between them (that of Ben Orton, claimed by Daryl Tuffey after Orton launched into the stiff Wellington wind, only to be caught safely by Daryl Mitchell well inside the boundary) they did an excellent job of forcing Ryder, Orton and then Michael Papps into accumulation mode early in the innings, sustaining pressure by consistently bowling a full length in the testing conditions.
Ryder rose to the challenge, enjoying his head-on battles with experienced seamers Tuffey and Brent Arnel and patiently waiting for the slightest error in line or length to deliver his blows. The Firebirds' 100 didn't materialise until the 15th over, shortly after which Ryder registered his half-century off 45 balls with a crisp four off Bradley Scott.
But with nine wickets still in hand, the stage was set for a late charge and, after Papps survived a run out when the ball popped out of Steven Croft's hand right at the bails, they plundered 56 runs off the last four overs to set a Wellington second-wicket record and a chase of 182 for the Knights.
Arnel's fine early work had been offset by an expensive finish, which included Papps being caught off a front-foot no ball in the 19th over: Papps carried on to see out the innings with an unbeaten 65.
Tuffey finished with 1-29 off his four, while Jono Boult (0-26) and Anton Devcich (0-29) were also effective off their full complement through the middle.
The Knights' reply got off to a healthy start, openers Brad Wilson and Anton Devcich raising their 50 partnership in the sixth over, just before the Firebirds' Australian import Theo Doropoulos had Wilson caught by fellow Australian pro Cameron Borgas.
Ryder and Luke Woodcock then put the brakes on through the middle before Doropoulos returned to claim Croft, who top-edged the ball to Tipene Friday in the deep, just three balls after Devcich had offered a similar skier that fell safely thanks to being carried beyond Ryder's reach by the brisk breeze.
Devcich was unable to ride his luck however, bowled on 37 after attempting to reverse-sweep Woodcock - leaving captain James Marshall and James Foster new at the crease with over 12 runs an over required through the back end.
The pair brought up the Northern hundred in the 14th over - ahead of the Firebirds at the same stage, but despite clean boundary-hitting by Foster and some timely sixes from Marshall, who had found his best touch of the competition, the tension steadily rose until they needed 30 from the last 12 balls.
Foster had narrowly survived being stumped by his opposite number, and was ultimately dislodged by a run out when Ryder flicked the ball almost nonchalantly back on to the stumps. The English pro was gone for 33 off 21, leaving Scott and Marshall (53* off 27) to find 16 off the last over to win.
But against Doropoulos, who turned in his career-best Twenty20 figures of 3-24, they could find only ones and twos. Two sixes off the last two balls would have scored them a home Preliminary Final; instead the Firebirds nailed a nine-run win while the Knights must now nervously await the result of the Auckland Aces' final match on Tuesday to discover whether or not they will be back in Wellington for the playoff.