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T20 preview: Wellington Firebirds

ANDREW HOUSTON
Last updated 06:39 19/11/2013
Shaun Tait
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SPORTING WONDER: There are few better sights in world cricket than Wellington Firebirds import Shaun Tait at full throttle.

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Today we complete our team by team HRV Cup preview series with last year's runners up, the Wellington Firebirds.

To see preview's for the Canterbury WizardsAuckland AcesCentral Districts Stagsor Otago Volts, click on the teams

Last season was by far the most successful HRV campaign in the Wellington Firebirds' history.

2012/13 Record: 6-4 (2nd place, losing finalist)

Record in 5 per cent games: 1-1

Overall batting RPO: 8.83 (2nd)

Overall opposition RPO: 8.43 (2nd)

Current TAB odds to win HRV Cup: $6.00

The Firebirds featured an above average batting line-up (2nd best) and bowling line-up (2nd best) and they thoroughly deserved their 2nd place finish during the round robin phase.

In the playoffs, they narrowly beat Auckland before succumbing to the Otago Volts buzz-saw in the final.

Wellington's performance in very close '5 per cent games' was neutral, indicating again that their record was a fair reflection of their performance.

It is all sounding positive for Wellington's chances then. But hang on a second...

Who's in and out?

Out: Jesse Ryder, Harry Boam, Tamim Iqbal, Scott Kuggeleijn, Cam Borgas, Mark Houghton

In: Brent Arnel, Shaun Tait, Travis Birt

That "out" section is quite simply a disaster. The obvious loss amongst that group is Jesse Ryder, a player who I have discussed at length in the Otago preview. He was clearly the best batsman in the entire HRV Cup last season as he averaged 64.3 Value Runs per game (VRs combine runs scored with adjusted strike rate).

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To only lose Ryder would have been a significant loss to Wellington's chances this season, but the other losses may also prove costly.

Tamim Iqbal, the Bangladesh opening batsman, was extremely effective in the six games that he played for Wellington, accumulating a VR average of 41. When he opened with Ryder, Wellington had by far the best opening combination in the HRV Cup.

Cam Borgas was not as productive with a VR average of just 22 however that is not a disastrous figure as lower-middle order players usually have lower VRs due to having less time to bat on average than top order players.

Teams have to main ways of replacing productive players like those Wellington have lost:

- Play young developing players whose performance may improve from previous seasons (young players in general are more likely to show significant improvement over previous results than established players who are 30-plus years old).

- Recruit players from other provinces or overseas (overseas players are maximum of two per team).

Let's break down how the Firebirds have implemented these methods this year.

Firstly, how many of the Firebirds' top 12 players are currently under 30 years old? One.

Wellington has by far the oldest team in the competition with an average age above 31 years old (CD Stags have the youngest at 25 years old). So with the exception of Michael Pollard, 24, it would be extremely unlikely that any of their players were to suddenly lift their performance to a level that could make up for the top players they have lost.

This is why I believe the departures of promising all-rounders Scott Kuggeleijn (to Northern Districts) and Harry Boam (to retirement at age 23) will really hurt the Firebirds.

Their departure robs Wellington of both two solid players based off of last year's performance and the chance that one of them could have developed into a 'star' player, like Neesham at Otago last year.

Secondly, since the Firebirds have almost zero young talent, it is essential that they import some impact players to try to boost their existing core of veteran talent. To that end they appear to have done a good job.

In Brent Arnel, they have not only added a veteran pace bowler with international experience, but he is also their new bowling coach. Having a player/coach is somewhat unusual in the modern era, but having such an experienced side as the Firebirds should make Arnel's coaching duties easier.

As a bowler, Arnel, 34, is still effective despite his advancing age for a fast bowler.

Last year he was still ND's leading wicket taker, so unless injury strikes there is no reason to believe he can't remain a reliable option.

For their two overseas spots, Wellington has so far confirmed Australia's Shaun Tait and Travis Birt for the first four matches of the season.

Tait should be familiar to most New Zealand cricket fans, as the hulking express pace bowler whom Brendon McCullum repeatedly 'scooped' over his own head several times during a memorable hundred in a T20 international a few years ago.

While he bowls in the 140kms range these days, he is still a menacing presence and most importantly still a genuine wicket taker.

Travis Birt might be the less well-known import, but he could prove to be the most impactful. He is a left handed top-order player (bats number 3 or 4), with huge striking power that saw him average 58 VRs in the Big Bash League in 2012.

In my opinion he is one of the most exciting players anywhere. How many players have scored 20 runs off one ball?

It would seem unlikely that he could replace the production of Ryder and Iqbal from last year, but he is one of the few players to have the talent to make it seem possible.

Batting outlook

Lineup: Pollard, Papps, Birt, Franklin, Elliot, Ronchi, Murdoch, Woodcock

Last year, the Firebirds' batting line-up was the second best in the competition, only a fraction behind Otago for the top spot. However, as previously discussed, the players who were most responsible for that success are now gone.

The players in their line-up this year fall into two categories:

1. 'Serviceable veterans' - Papps, Elliot, Murdoch, Ronchi and Woodcock

All of the players above have performed well at the domestic level and at various times played (or been in contention to play) for the Blackcaps.

None however have yet been able to cement a permanent spot due to unfortunately not quite being good enough.

They all remain reasonable options in the HRV Cup though and I would expect them all to average in the 15-25 VRs range.

2. 'Boom or bust X-factors' - Franklin, Birt

Having players who are 'serviceable' is fine, but to have an average or above batting line-up you must have at least one or two players capable of producing regular explosive and significant innings (averaging 40+ VRs).

Wellington's best chance at this is from Franklin and Birt (although Birt is only signed for four games). They have both had seasons in past years where they have consistently fulfilled the match-winning role, but in other seasons they have also disappointed.

The range of outcomes they can provide is very wide, with anything from a 20-45 VR average seemingly a realistic possibility.

Bowling outlook

Options: Tait, Gillespie, McKay, Arnel, Woodcock, Patel, Franklin, Tugaga

Wellington's bowling should be the strength of their side this year with good depth and variety, particularly in pace bowling.

One challenge they will face in maximising their depth is getting the balance of their side right. All of their pace bowling options (Tait, Gillespie, McKay and Arnel) are somewhere between feeble and useless with the bat.

That will likely mean they will only be able to play three at any one time without drastically weakening their batting line-up.

Over the course of an entire season though - especially with Tait only signed for four games - it is a good problem to have and I have confidence that they will be an above average pace bowling unit.

The spinning options for Wellington are likely to be the duo of Jeetan Patel and Luke Woodcock.

I think they are likely to both play in most conditions due to their ability to add depth to the batting unit, which none of the pace bowlers provide.

They are both dependable (or boring depending on your perspective) veterans with solid records at the domestic level who should be capable back up for the pace men, especially if the opposition has lost a couple of early wickets.

Overall, I expect Wellington to remain a top two bowling outfit this year, as long as their pace bowling remains fit and available throughout the season.

Mascot outlook

Name: Pyro

What: Half man (legs and body) and half red bird (giant oversized birds head) with matching red cape.

Intimidation Factor: High as it's apparently an angry bird as evidenced by its fighting. If you see it just remember, don't make it angry, you won't like it when it's angry.

Fun Factor: Low, on the cuddly scale where Freddy Kruger is 0 and Puss-in-Boots is a 10. Pyro is a solid -4.

Key player

Michael Pollard

The observant of you may have noticed that I did not include Pollard in either player category in the batting section above. He is the one Firebirds batsman who I don't feel confident in classifying due to his youth and inconsistency.

He has looked great at times (two seasons ago in the HRV Cup and so far this year in the Plunket Shield), but poor at others such as last year when he averaged six VRs and was dropped.

With Ryder and Iqbal gone, he will have ample opportunity to establish himself as Wellington's cornerstone opening batsman in limited overs games. Does he have what it takes to become an 'X-Factor' player?

Pollard's development along with Franklin and Birt hold the keys for Wellington scoring enough runs to be a top three team this season.

Prediction

Wins 4 - 6 losses (5th place)

The loss of key batsmen from last season sees Wellington's batting take a big step back from last year to below average performance levels.

Their veteran bowling unit is the team's strength and keeps Wellington a competitive team throughout the HRV Cup.

Ultimately they will fall short of qualifying for the playoffs when they are unable to score enough runs to keep up with the other elite batting line-ups in the final few rounds.


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