As comeback matches go, Central Districts' final round Plunket Shield encounter with Northern Districts at Saxton Oval in Nelson was as good as it gets for Marlborough fast bowler Ben Wheeler.
Thanks to a two-week layoff because of a hamstring injury and a further six-week delay with a torn abdominal muscle, the 21-year-old left-armer had not been in action for the Stags since a T20 match against ND on November 23.
After nearly three months of recovery and rehabilitation, he must have simply been looking forward to playing again. As it happened, his comeback match turned into so much more.
Wheeler was CD's best bowler, returning match figures of 8-126, including his second first-class five-wicket haul in the second innings and had his side in the hunt for an outright victory to secure the competition title. As it transpired, title rivals Otago suffered an outright loss to Wellington, confirming CD as Plunket Shield winners and allowing them to pull the pin in their match with ND at tea on Saturday afternoon.
The triumph was three-fold for Wheeler. Not only was it a successful return to the bowling crease, it was his first title as a Stag and also saw him follow in the footsteps of his late grandfather Ray Dowker, who won the prestigious shield twice with Canterbury in the 1950s, the second occasion as captain.
"Just an awesome experience. I was just glad to be back on the park and to contribute with some wickets. It was going to be a big day if that result hadn't gone our way in Wellington and we were set up for a pretty good chase.
"It was pretty awesome to lift that shield, especially because granddad did it around 60 years ago. I remember I talked to mum and gran about it a few years ago when I made my debut [for CD]. We were saying how awesome it would be if I was able to win the shield in my career like he did, so it was pretty special to do that."
After the slow process of healing and strengthening his abdominal injury, Wheeler had initially hoped to be back for CD's win against Canterbury the previous week. However, with not quite enough bowling under his belt and his body still not recovering well enough, the decision was made not to play and be 100 per cent ready to go for what was possibly a crucial final round clash against ND. In hindsight, it was the correct decision and he was able to led a Stags attack including Black Cap Doug Bracewell and ensure CD remained on track to claim the Plunket Shield crown.
Since making his debut against Auckland in March 2010, Wheeler has played 16 times for the Stags and has had his fair share of trouble with injury. After his latest performance against ND, though, he is optimistic those troubles are behind him. allowing him to forge ahead in his burgeoning career.
"[The body is] there or thereabouts. You are never really 100 per cent, but I am pretty close and tomorrow (Monday) will be the teller on how well I recover and were I stand with the one-dayer (against ND in Nelson) on Tuesday. I'm pretty confident the body's good to go now and I can keep away from the injuries."
- The Marlborough Express