There are just eight days remaining in the 2016/17 Plunket Shield season and the penultimate round shapes as the most fascinating yet.
Set to begin this Tuesday in Nelson, Mount Maunganui and Dunedin, it will present Canterbury’s first opportunity to add the first-class title to The Ford Trophy that's already proudly in its cabinet.
With four outright wins from eight matches and a 19-point advantage over the Auckland Aces, Andrew Ellis’s men certainly enter the crunch round in the box seat — but still require a strong and weather-blessed round, and the chasers in the other games to fall short, to lock in the prize with a round to spare.
In the hunt:
Canterbury — 93 points
Defending champions the Auckland Aces — 74 points
Northern Districts — 69 points
Wellington Firebirds — 64 points
Full points table, leading runscorers and leading wicket-takers
A regular custodian of the historic Plunket Shield in recent seasons, Canterbury has won the national title in 2010/11, 2013/14 and 2014/15.
And, they’ve just regained one of their most useful attacking weapons — 23-year-old left-arm pace bowler Ed Nuttall making his return to the squad following recovery from the shoulder surgery that’s kept him out all season.
Canterbury is away to the Central Stags at Nelson's Saxton Oval this week, where the weather forecast is largely good until the final day. The Stags have suffered an injury-blighted summer when it comes to their bowling attack and have now lost consistent wicket-taker Seth Rance to a groin injury, just to add to their fun.
Still, last season’s top first-class wicket-taker, Stags off-spinner Ajaz Patel, remains the top Plunket Shield this season with 38 wickets — although Aces leg-spinner Tarun Nathula has closed the gap by two wickets in the last week, having taken his tally to 36 after both spinners yet again collected five-wicket bags in the same round.
Otago Volts captain Brad Wilson meanwhile leads Luke Woodcock as the season’s top runscorer with two rounds remaining, requiring a further eight runs for 600 first-class runs in the summer.
In Mount Maunganui, Dean Brownlie will make a return to the injury-hit Northern Districts squad, but Corey Anderson — who made a welcome return to the bowling crease last week — will remain as ND’s captain.
Plunket Shield Round Nine
21-24 March 2017
Central Stags v Canterbury at Saxton Oval, Nelson
Central Stags (two changes, Liam Dudding for the injured Seth Rance, Mitch Renwick was a late replacement for Ben Smith who fell ill after being named in the 12): Greg Hay, Mitch Renwick, Will Young (c), Jesse Ryder, George Worker, Tom Bruce, Dane Cleaver (w), Ajaz Patel, Adam Milne, Navin Patel, Liam Dudding, Blair Tickner
Canterbury (one change, Ed Nuttall for Henry Shipley): Andrew Ellis (c), Todd Astle, Chad Bowes, Jack Boyle, Cameron Fletcher (w), Peter Fulton, Tim Johnston, Ken McClure, Cole McConchie, Logan van Beek, Will Williams
Match referee: Richard Hayward
Umpires: Wayne Knights and John Dempsey (first-class debut)
Scorers: Duncan Mitchell and Euan West
Northern Districts v Wellington Firebirds at Bay Oval, Mt Maunganui
Northern Districts (two changes, Dean Brownlie for Joe Carter, Brett Randell on first-class debut for Zak Gibson; note: Corey Anderson remains as captain): Corey Anderson (c), James Baker, Dean Brownlie, Henry Cooper, Nick Kelly, Daryl Mitchell, Scott Kuggeleijn, Bharat Popli, Brett Randell, Tim Seifert (w), Ish Sodhi, Josef Walker
Wellington Firebirds (one change, Fraser Colson comes in for Stephen Murdoch — unavailable for selection): Michael Papps (c), Brent Arnel, Hamish Bennett, Tom Blundell, Fraser Colson, Hamish Marshall, Matt McEwan, Iain McPeake, Luke Ronchi (w), Anurag Verma, Luke Woodcock, Peter Younghusband
Match referee: Kevin Earl
Umpires: Derek Walker and Tim Parlane
Scorers: Bill Andersson and Dean Plummer
Otago Volts v Auckland Aces at University of Otago Oval, Dunedin
Otago Volts (two changes, Gregor Croudis (first-class debut) in for Michael Bracewell, Jack Hunter in for Jacob Duffy): Brad Wilson (c), Michael Rippon, Greg Croudis, Sean Eathorne, Derek de Boorder (w), Sam Wells, Anaru Kitchen, Christi Viljoen, Nathan Smith, Michael Rae, Rhys Phillips, Jack Hunter
Auckland Aces (one change, Colin Munro returns for Donovan Grobbelaar): Mark Chapman, Lockie Ferguson, Michael Guptill-Bunce, Ben Horne (w), Colin Munro, Mitchell McClenaghan, Tarun Nethula, Rob Nicol (c), Robbie O’Donnell, Glenn Phillips, Raja Sandhu, Sean Solia
Match referee: Gary Baxter
Umpires: Tony Gillies and Brent (Billy) Bowden
Scorers: Malcolm Jones and Helen Simpson
Entry is free at all matches, gates open from 10am. Follow the live-scoring and live video-highlights here at blackcaps.co.nz or on the BLACKCAPS mobile app, or keep up with the play on Social with the hashtag #plunketshield