Southland must build on good start in challenging times
The true test of any sports team is how it responds when leading players are out.
Southland's Hawke Cup cricketers were undermanned for the trip to Oamaru at the weekend to face North Otago, but will have taken a wealth of confidence out of the way they were able to grind out a positive result.
Southland were missing their best two strike bowlers, Craig Smith and Jacob Duffy, who have both played for the Otago Volts this summer, and some questioned whether they had enough firepower to gain 20 wickets for the match.
With Jonathan Hodson, Jason Domigan and Hamish Skelt also either unavailable or injured for the clash, it was always going to require a complete team effort to secure the win, and Southland coach Steve Jackson would have been ecstatic with his team's gutsy four-wicket win.
"Mr Experience" Ronnie Kotkamp, who has been playing top-level cricket for what seems like an eternity now, and promising Metro Tigers left-armer Hamish Cooke were brilliant for Southland, teaming up to take 11 wickets during the game. Mark Beer, Rhuebyn Prattley and Indian spinner Khanin Saikia, who was on debut, also did exactly what was asked of them with the ball and picked up important scalps.
Batting has been Southland's Achilles heel in recent times and they will be disappointed with the way they folded in their first innings on Saturday, going from a commanding position of 126 for two at stumps to 181 all out, early the next morning.
There were a few nervous moments during Southland's second dig at bat as they looked to chase down 116 off 38 overs for the outright win, but they managed to get over the line thanks to Ryan Duffy's superb unbeaten half-century.
Southland's top-order batsmen have been guilty of getting starts, but not kicking on to substantial scores this season and, if they want to top the southern zone group and gain a Hawke Cup challenge against Hamilton next month, they will need to solve that problem.
Southland's depth, which has probably been the strongest it has been in several seasons, will again be tested against South Canterbury at Queens Park this weekend, with their skipper and most prolific run-scorer Fitzgibbon attending a wedding, and Ryan Duffy and Hodson also unavailable. Skelt and Smith are also under injury clouds and will have to overcome their niggles to gain selection.
Several of the side's batsmen are light on runs in representative cricket this season and without Fitzgibbon and Duffy it will be a perfect chance for them to stand up and prove they belong at Hawke Cup level.
Southland have made a wonderful start to the Hawke Cup, snaring maximum points from their first two games and will be determined not to let their guard down against South Canterbury.
Southland last challenged for the Hawke Cup in 2006 and have not held district cricket's version of the holy grail since 1992, but there is reason to be optimistic about this year's side.
This weekend's game will be an ideal litmus test to see how strong the depth in Southland cricket really is.