Saturday’s Ford Trophy Grand Final at Mount Maunganui’s Bay Oval shapes up as a showdown between two teams with a point to prove.
For the Tulsi Wellington Firebirds, it’s a chance to get their hands on a piece of national silverware they haven’t won in 12 seasons, while the SKYCITY Northern Knights are out to make it two trophies out of three this season after the summer’s HRV Twenty20 champions plunged to last place in the Plunket Shield.
“We've played in three elimination finals to get into this position and won all three,” notes Knights coach James Pamment of their short format form, “so we’ll take confidence from that as we look to finish it off with one more.
“In saying that, the Firebirds have had to win their last two games as well, so we are expecting a good fight. I think it’s about staying calm, doing the basics well, doing the basics well for longer and always having good communication within your team.
“Sometimes the pressure of finals cricket, even on the best of wickets, can lead to a low-scoring game. We’re aware of that, and will look to keep calm and handle whatever the situation is. Having come through an HRV final under pressure already won't hurt though, that’s for sure.”
The Knights took a relatively direct route to the final, having beaten the top-ranked Canterbury Wizards away in the Major Preliminary Final to secure the home grand finale, while the Firebirds have toughed their way through to the last two after scraping in at fourth at the end of the regular competition.
The Knights have history on their side, having claimed this trophy four times since the Firebirds last had their name on it — including back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
However, few of their youthful squad were involved on those occasions — and one former proud wearer of the maroon and gold, Brent Arnel, now turns out for their opposition.
One who does know exactly what it takes to win a Ford Trophy is Knights veteran seamer Graeme Aldridge, whose 5-39 helped the Knights take out the 2008-09 title.
Should he be selected in the playing XI, Aldridge will break the 122-game ND record for most List A appearances which he currently shares with retired former captain and BLACKCAP Robbie Hart.
Of keen interest to Arnel, Aldridge and their respective attacks will be the nature of new couch grass strip at Bay Oval. While rye is the usual species encountered in domestic cricket, springier couch was employed to ensure a finals deck could be ready in time after the ground had hosted the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifying Tournament earlier this summer.
Turf Manager Jared Carter says the area’s dearth of rainfall has also been challenging — ironically because the ground has superb drainage. “We have had to go through 120 megalitres of water daily to keep the outfield in condition, but it’s looking a picture. It’s definitely worthy of a final.”
Knights captain Daniel Flynn is leading his first Ford Trophy final as captain in his old home town and, despite a smattering of low scores, is leading from the front — averaging close to 50 for his team.
“I guess that’s the nature of opening the batting,” Flynn surmised after their final hit-out this morning. “You will always get the odd good ball early, but as long as you are still getting stuck in regularly, then you are doing your job for the team and I am really happy with how things have panned out.”
Also enjoying a strong season is fiery 22-year-old allrounder Scott Kuggeleijn, who effectively switched places with Arnel when he rejoined Northern Districts after starting his professional career at the Firebirds.
“‘Kuggs’ has been a great addition”, Flynn says. “We always knew we had some very good young players coming through, and they have stood up very well this season to earn a second final. Kuggs has been bowling really well, he is definitely up there as one of the fastest on the scene and has the ability to bowl a heavy ball, but also, with the bat, he makes an important contribution for us and has shown us he has the ability to come in and finish off an innings quickly.
“But it is really a case of us all bringing our best to the game on the day. That we handled that HRV final under pressure will give us confidence, but as ‘JP’ says, it’s a case of doing the basics well. If we can just stay focused on that, I think that should put us in good stead. It looks like a solid wicket. It will be interesting to see how it plays, and what’s there for our spin attack which is obviously one of our strengths.”
Firebirds skipper James Franklin said his team were ignoring the talk about the team not having won a Ford Trophy in over a decade.
“We’re treating this very much as a one-off game,” Franklin said after the team’s sole hit-out in the sun-drenched Mount before the big game. “We’re trying to block it out that we haven’t won a final for quite a while.”
Both teams have regained some BLACKCAPS talent from Bangladesh with the Knights today trimming their 14-man squad, keeping Anton Devcich and Trent Boult and leaving out Anurag Verma and local player Brett Hampton; they also have the services of star keeper-bastman BJ Watling who will be going head to head with the Firebirds’ Luke Ronchi.
“Luke is obviously a a quality international player in a crucial position, so that is a bonus for us to have him back,” says Franklin. “But not everything depends on Luke. We’ve had a lot of other guys playing very well in the last few games, and hopefully those guys can continue to step up.”
What will be his key message to the troops in the morning?
“It’s a good question — I don’t often think too much about what I’m going to say until I start talking, but the key one I think is relaxing. It’s obviously hard to lose from your mind the fact that it’s a final, but, as clichéd as it is, you really do have to try and just treat it like another game — do your preparations the same, go through your routines the same and hope you achieve the result as a consequence.”
The 2014 Ford Trophy Final will be broadcast live on SKY Sport from 10.10a.m.