Hamilton coach Nathan Daley has handed the favourites tag to challengers Bay of Plenty ahead of his side's first Hawke Cup defence of the season, starting today.
The cup, which is the symbol of supremacy in New Zealand district cricket and is more than 100 years old, has been in Hamilton's hands since they won it in March 2011 and then got through their four defences last year.
Hamilton have six players who have played for Northern Districts, to the Bay's two, and among them is Anton Devcich - who was this week named in a New Zealand XI to face England in two Twenty20 matches.
However, the hosts are keen to take underdog status into the three-day fixture at Galloway Park.
Despite beating BOP in their most recent outing - a Duckworth-Lewis affected one-day game in Taupo in November - Hamilton have lost to their rivals in their past two Fergus Hickey Trophy two-day matches.
That, along with the fact a lot of the Bay's batsmen played for ND at the recent national A tournament and Hamilton's batsmen have had a lean summer to date, has Daley wary.
"They're probably the hardest challenge we've had, harder than anything last year," he said.
"They've been the form team for two years. I'm sure they'll be confident going into this game. I'd say they'd be favourites on paper and on form."
Hamilton have been boosted by the availability of classy left-handed batsman and left-arm spinner Devcich, who was left out of ND's Plunket Shield side.
He adds to the hosts' splendour of spinners, with fellow left-armer Mitchell Santner and off-spinner Joe Walker set to have a prominent role, while there are also another three slow options.
"A lot of Hawke Cups that I've played in over the years, batting and spin bowling has won a lot of games, so hopefully it does us justice this weekend," Daley said, adding that the pitch should suit that. "They're normally pretty good [at Galloway Park] because the groundsman only has that one pitch to work on instead of all the club pitches.
"It looked good yesterday [Wednesday] when we practised.
"It looked to have a little bit of grass on it but it was brown and pretty hard."
When that grass is taken off and it bakes in the sun, it will only get harder so there should be plenty of bounce on offer.
But for the spinners to have something to bowl at, the batsmen need to do the job - something they haven't done well this season.
With the experienced Brook Hatwell and Sam McLeod not earning selection, the onus was on these players to stand up, Daley said.
"Most of them haven't got runs all year. They've had a pretty poor year our batters, in club cricket and rep cricket.
"It's exactly concentration and just the mental approach to their batting, and not wanting to bat time, that's been bad all year. So we've gone in the nets this week and just worked on batting time and not giving the bowlers anything.
"They practise like they want to play the game, so let's hope they do that.
"I'll never stop them from playing their natural games but they've just got to have a game plan and take the right options. Their batting plans have been terrible. If they go out there with a plan and get out, I'm happy with it, as long as they stick to their plan."
While the team is fairly young, they have played in several Hawke Cup games before so know what's required.
For BOP, seamers Tony Goodin and Brett Hampton have experienced time on the park for the Knights this season, with the former being relieved of ND 12th man duties, while left-arm spinner Dale Swan has been bowling well.
The visitors have had to give a late call-up to wicketkeeper Alex Oakley after Tim Clarke fractured his wrist at training on Wednesday.
- Waikato Times
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