Shield worth blood, sweat and (a few) cheers

IAN ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 01/01/2013
Waikato Times

The Plunket Shield is the toughest title to win in New Zealand's domestic cricket season. The Northern Knights persevered to win in 2012.

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The Knights had their day, even if the celebrations were muted in comparison, writes Ian Anderson.

The Chiefs shared their moment with 25,000 delirious fans at a sold-out Waikato Stadium.

The Magic celebrated their triumph - amid fireworks, streamers and balloons - with some hardcore travelling fans in Melbourne.

The Northern Knights clinched the Plunket Shield on a soporific Wednesday at the end of summer in Napier, in front of a handful of retirees, unemployed and cricket tragics.

Not surprising then that after a few celebratory handshakes and backslaps, the 11 Knights wandered back to the places for the next over of the penultimate day of their shield campaign against Central Districts in a match they would eventually lose by 252 runs.

The Knights were permitted a minor moment on the day their title was sealed - a glass of champagne helped wash down the usual lunch fare of pasta and salad.

"I think the batsman had a few more than the bowlers," Knights seamer Graeme Aldridge laughed.

First-class cricket is a strange, subdued beast. For a variety of reasons - the timing of the matches (often during weekdays), the greater allure of the shorter formats, the lack of promotion - it attracts very few spectators.

Yet it remains the breeding ground for this country's prospective international players and, if you ask any cricket fan, they're all too ready to cast their opinions on who should replace the under-performing players in the national side.

They'll devour newspaper coverage, try to grab scores off the radio, and continually refresh their internet scores.

The Plunket Shield is a grind - 10 matches, 40 days, 260 hours of unrelenting cricket. A title-winning side does not take home the silverware by virtue of good fortune. The Knights finished with 96 points - featuring four outright wins - to head off nearest challengers Central Districts by seven points.

Yet for a time it looked as if Lady Luck may not smile on the Knights, who jumped out on the other five sides early in the campaign.

Bad light in the capital on the last day of their eighth round match against the Wellington Firebirds denied them the chance to clinch the title with two matches up their sleeves, as Bradburn explained.

"We had the better of them the whole game, we ran through them a little bit late in the last session."

After Brent Arnel picked up Mark Gillespie as Wellington's ninth wicket to fall, the Knights felt they could reach out and touch the trophy.

However, last man in Andy McKay never had to face a ball as the umpires sent the two teams from the field for bad light and time ran out for a return.

"There was one cloud in the sky, one cloud that was covering the sun," a frustrated Bradburn recalled.

Then bad weather in Auckland and some smart tactics from the Aces ensured the Knights could pick up only three points from their penultimate match, still leaving them short of the crown.

That meant they headed to Napier at the tail-end of a taxing season knowing a swag of first innings batting and bowling points or an outright victory, would clinch the shield.

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But the match didn't progess smoothly despite gaining the maximum four bowling points when dismissing the Central Stags for 342 in 95.4 overs.

The Knights needed to just get past 250 in 110 overs to snatch the one point required but stumbled to 174-8 before Arnel joined a bereaved wicketkeeper/batsman Peter McGlashan.

"Peter's grandmother had passed away, and that was a very emotional time for him, and for the team," Bradburn said.

The pair added 68 for the ninth wicket, but both fell within two runs of each other as the Knights ended six short of their target.

That left them requiring some assistance from other matches to ease nerves and they got it the following day when Canterbury denied Auckland the points they were seeking.

"It was early on day three that we heard the news come through that we'd finally clinched it," Bradburn said, sparking the muted celebrations.

At the end of day four, and the completion of their season, the players and staff were finally able to enjoy the spoils.

"That is what makes it so special - the best team will come through in the end," Bradburn said.

"It's a whole season race for the Plunket Shield - that's what makes it such a magnificent and tough trophy to win.

"For me, there's nothing like the Plunket Shield - it's a tough one to win. You have to play consistent cricket for the whole season and I was very very proud of the guys throughout the whole season.

"We work hard at our gameplan for the four-day stuff and we work hard at winning enough moments in a game to put ourselves in a position to win on the last day."

The Plunket Shield triumph was Northern Districts' third in six seasons and the second under Bradburn's guidance since he took over early in the 2008-09 season - something he never wants to take for granted.

"You can't win trophies without the stars aligning - things have got to work in your favour.

"When you look back on a career, those are moments to really savour."

- Waikato Times

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