Canterbury coach Gary Stead didn't hesitate labelling Saturday's dramatic 10-run Plunket Shield victory over Wellington as one of the best first-class matches he's been involved with as a player or coach.
Canterbury surged to the competition lead after the thriller in Rangiora, with two outright wins from the first three matches they sit atop the standings on 37 points, eight ahead of Otago.
Wellington fell agonisingly close to a momentous win in what was a gallant run chase; they were finally dismissed for 459 chasing the mammoth target of 470 to win.
Opener Michael Papps carried his bat throughout the innings and was unbeaten on 183 when he watched in despair as his 10th and last partner, No 11 Brent Arnel, was bowled by Hamish Bennett for eight.
"I think relief was probably the main emotion in the dressing room," Stead said of the initial post-match reaction.
"It was one of those games you thought you had won but then it started to slip away. It was a pretty special victory and in my first-class cricket career was definitely one of the more memorable I've been involved with.
"It was tense, no doubt about it. Nobody was moving from their chairs apart from when they were pacing around.
"Michael Papps batted extraordinarily well, it would have been an incredible victory for them, but for us it was a great win and hopefully it sets up the season."
Wellington's chase was the second-highest fourth innings total to lose a first-class match in New Zealand, bettered only by Otago's final dig of 495 when chasing 640 to win a timeless match against Wellington at Carisbrook in 1924.
Had they scored 11 more runs, it would have been the third highest fourth innings total to win a first-class match on these shores.
"It was an incredible game of cricket in the end, and testament to both sides pushing for victory," Stead said.
"Wellington showed a lot of fight but we were really pleased with how our guys held their nerve. It was always in our favour but the closer it got the harder it got and every run started to count. It was just an amazing game."
Canterbury were ahead for most of the match but Papps in what many would argue is career-best form; the former New Zealand opener came into the match averaging 75 this season and he tallied another 227 runs without being dismissed at Rangiora. He never looked like getting out and Canterbury needed to chip away at the other end.
They did, the bowlers toiling hard on what wasn't an easy pitch to take wickets, with spinners Todd Astle (3-122) and Tim Johnston (2-72) doing most of the work and Hamish Bennett earning a special mention from Stead.
With 14 wickets, Bennett leads the Plunket Shield standings, one wicket ahead of Astle.
"He got through 40 overs in the match and he wouldn't have done that for a number of years. It's great his body is standing up to that," Stead said, also acknowledging the third innings batting efforts of captain Andrew Ellis, who scored 109, and Astle and Dean Brownlie, who made crucial half-centuries in a match that looked as though it could be over inside two days but ended up producing a great finish.
Canterbury's next match is against Northern Districts at Hagley Oval, starting on Thursday.
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