Coach Jamie Siddons blamed the mental hangover from Wellington's Twenty20 final defeat for the team's embarrassing loss to Otago that ended their Plunket Shield hopes.
The shattered Firebirds limped home yesterday for back-to-back home matches after an innings and 240-run defeat inside three days at University Oval. It was their third loss from six outings and saw them slip to fifth on the ladder, 42 points behind leaders Central Districts, whose victory over Canterbury in Napier kept them in the box seat.
Dunedin provided a week from hell for the Firebirds. The impact of their Twenty20 final defeat the previous Sunday hit home to Siddons as they perished meekly for 254 and 157.
"It was a bit of a defeated team going out there. We felt it pretty badly and we thought we were a great chance of winning if we played half decent. The boys suffered through two or three days in Dunedin and it seems we didn't pick ourselves up and get ready for four-day cricket."
Central lead Otago by 15 points, with both having played an extra match. The latter have 22 points to spare over Northern so it seems a race between two for the title.
The Firebirds' search for a trophy will now switch to the one-day competition starting next month.
"It's a massive blow," Siddons said. "We had a game up on [Otago] and at worst we needed to stop them winning. We didn't do that so they've raced away along with CD. We're miles back, sitting fifth and our form suggests that's where we should be."
No Wellington batsman topped 50 in either innings as Otago paceman James Fuller took match figures of 10-79.
It seemed so easy for the home batsmen who plundered 651-9 against a Wellington attack led by the returning Mark Gillespie, who took 4-161 off 31 overs.
Gillespie was playing his first match since suffering an abdominal strain before Christmas that ruled him out of the South African tour. He was 70-80 per cent fit, Siddons said, but was desperately needed to add some punch.
Ili Tugaga and Scott Kuggeleijn went at worse than five an over, while spinner Luke Woodcock took 1-89 off 27. "We need to make some scores and find a way to take 20 wickets. We haven't done that for the year so far without declarations, so that's a massive issue," Siddons said. "Other teams seem to be able to blast through other teams and take 12 points easily.
"We've got to find that solution and getting more bounce at the Basin might help."
Wellington host last-placed Canterbury, starting on Thursday, then Auckland next week. Gillespie will be better for the run but Andy McKay (side strain) remains on ice, pending more tests today.
Grant Elliott, who played two excellent hands in the final two one-day games in South Africa, was scheduled to return last night but will be available for only the final two days against Canterbury due to NZ Cricket regulations which stipulate a rest period for players returning from tours.
Central left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel was the hero at McLean Park yesterday as he took 6-57 in their 81-run victory. In his third first-class match, Patel took his first five-bag at a crucial time.
Canterbury were dismissed for 250, with test hopeful Peter Fulton top scoring with 59.
Ross Taylor scored 52 on Saturday in his second innings back, to boost Central to 320 in their second innings.
In Hamilton, Northern Districts moved to third as they beat Auckland by an innings and 90 runs.
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