New Zealand has a new HRV Cup champion after the Otago Volts held off the HELL Wellington Firebirds in a taut final steeped in nervous tension and absorbing one-on-one contests.
Batting first, the Firebirds suffered a cataclysmic beginning when they lost three of their prime batsmen - Pollard, Papps and Borgas - for ducks, the latter edging a brute of a ball in Jacob Duffy's second over. Just four balls earlier Duffy had had a hand in the dismissal of form batsman Papps, too, circling at backward square as the skied catch, off the bowling of his hunting mate James Fuller, came falling towards him. It was just the confidence boost 18-year-old Duffy, playing in his maiden final, needed after Jesse Ryder had plundered his quite respectable opening effort for 16 runs and a leg bye, including two thunderous sixes over midwicket.
For once the entertaining Ryder's explosive batting - stopped at 30 off 15, including four sixes, after Ian Butler tricked him into a miscue with his first ball at the start of the sixth over - wasn't enough to buoy the remainder of the Firebirds' line-up towards a muscular total. Luke Ronchi offered early hope, but when he swept a long hop off Nick Beard to a diving Fuller - and then import Theo Doropoulos was bowled off in the same over, the Volts were ecstatic, the Firebirds chewing their nails at 54/6 and skiddy slow maestro Beard temporarily moving into the clear as the leading wicket-taker of the competition.
The Wellingtonians now had the double problem of two new batsmen at the crease - and Luke Woodcock and Harry Boam had hardly been required to bat all season - and an urgent need to get more runs on the board whilst in wicket-preservation mode. The accuracy of Beard, who was bowled through for a nifty 2-13, made it a tough challenge. Once he was off, the batsmen risked more aggression and fought their way to a 72-run partnership that lasted 11 overs - the highest 7th-wicket stand of the season, one that kept the Firebirds in with a shout.
Duffy's return broke the resistance, the young man watching with a horror that turned to delight as Boam skied his first delivery, a rank full toss, into the hands of Mark Craig: 126/7. Scott Kuggeleijn gained a life when Duffy dropped another steepler, off his own bowling, two balls later, before Fuller swept in to take two scalps in the final over - Kuggeleijn and Mark Houghton - to return his career-best Twenty20 figures of 4-24 just days before his 23rd birthday.
A target of 144 at a required RPO of 7.20 did not seem enough on paper, yet the Firebirds knew the sheer nervous tension of the final gave them a chance. Strapping pace bowler Ili Tugaga added to it when he kept Broom to just a two off his first over, before the tall, demanding slower bowler Mark Houghton scored the big wicket of Hamish Rutherford with his first ball, the opener chopping on for the fourth duck of the final.
The bravery of skipper Papps, who had kept his mid-off up inside the circle, was rewarded when Aaron Redmond, who had already belted one six over long on, was caught off the last ball of the same Houghton over. At 8/2, chasing a meagre seven an over, the Volts suddenly had to check themselves, particularly with "golden-arm" Ryder still to come.
Derek de Boorder was the more audacious of the batting pair, but it was the steady Neil Broom, who had timed the ball sweetly, who rode his luck at a critical moment when Houghton dived awkwardly into the rope to transform what should have been a key wicket into a six.
With the feisty de Boorder slashing the ball for another six and then ramping a four, their partnership swelled to 71 off 60, the RPO more or less on target, before de Boorder was bowled by Woodcock on 33.
The watchful capacity crowd perked up when Ryan ten Doeschate slaughtered Woodcock's next over for two maximums, the first sailing so far onto the roof of the local Art Gallery that a replacement ball had to be sought. Whilst the Ryder magic got him in the next over, the 15th, it was the Firebirds feeling the pressure now, desperate to knock over quick wickets to give themselves hope at the death.
Broom raised his 50 off Kuggeleijn but there was no celebration since new partner Michael Bracewell was run out for a duck, without facing, off the same delivery, having risked a second run against the fine arm of Harry Boam in the deep. But with three overs left, the Volts now needed only 18 runs: run-a-ball stuff and when Ian Butler produced a hearty straight drive for six off Houghton, the crowd dared to celebrate.
Sadly Broom's fine 60 off 52 balls came to an end in the 18th, but he had the satisfaction of knowing the damage had been done. In his most enjoyable cameo yet, Butler turned the next ball to the square leg boundary, then delivered the killer blow against Ryder by sending the ball high over midwicket. Now the winning equation was but three off the last 11 balls and Butler brought it home in style with a four to seal the title and 10 straight wins for the thrilled Volts, who will now represent New Zealand at the Champions League qualifying phase in September.
Duffy's last wicket saw him equal Beard as the leading wicket-taker of the HRV Cup season with 15 victims, while Jesse Ryder's consolation prize is finishing by far the leading run-maker, with 584 runs at a 58.40 average and strike rate of 174.32. The next best aggregate is that of Volts pro ten Doeschate who gathered 401 runs at 50.12.