NZC: Get set for a first-class summer

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Photo Credit: Cricket Wellington

The blocks are almost ready. The players are in the grass nets, or going hard out in warm-up games. Season 2023/24 is just around the corner, with New Zealand’s six Plunket Shield teams gearing up for first ball next Friday!

Greg Hay’s Central Stags head into the new season as the defending champions, after their brilliant finish snatched the 2022/23 title in Nelson in April.

The Stags had needed the full suite of 20 points to claim the Shield, with interim leaders Canterbury watching nervously from afar. If the Stags put so much as one hoof wrong, the Shield would be heading to Hagley Oval.

Despite losing a day and a half to weather, left-armer Ray Toole’s career-best 7/57 on the last day, with support from Liam Dudding, clinched the outright win that the Stags had needed – stunning their opponents, the Auckland Aces.

Now the Aces and Stags meet again in the opening round of 2023/24, this time on Auckland’s turf at Kennards Hire Community Oval.

Two familiar faces will be missing from the Eden Terrace headquarters.

Longtime Aces wicketkeeper Ben Horne and their genteel, erstwhile BLACKCAPS spinner Will Somerville have retired, their swansong not having gone their way in Nelson that last day, Horne bowing out as the defeated captain in his last game.

But now the rest of the team is ready to go again.

Round one of eight begins at 10.30am on Friday next week – 20 October, on the eve of Labour Weekend and the Hawke’s Bay anniversary holiday back at the Stags’ own HQ.

Canterbury will be away, too, in their season opener against the Wellington Firebirds at the no doubt juicy Cello Basin Reserve where the Firebirds and Aces have enjoyed a warm-up friendly.

And the Otago Volts, who always begin their season on the road, are heading north to play Northern Districts at Hamilton’s Seddon Park. ND will play the Stags in a friendly this week.

All three rounds will be simultaneously live-streamed every day on NZC YouTube and you can watch the same feed on the livescoring here at NZC.nz or on the NZC app. What’s more, it’s totally free to watch this top-flight cricket, whether supporting at the ground or following online.

A team can earn a maximum of 160 points in the first-class championship summer, but outright wins (worth 12 points, with the other eight points on the table for meeting first-innings targets inside 110 overs) will never fall into anyone’s lap.

Widely regarded by the players themselves as the toughest trophy to win, teams need both a high degree of consistency, squad depth – and a dose of good fortune with the weather and toss – to keep winning.

With an El Niño on its way for summer, torrential rain may not be much of a factor this season. Top order batsmen and spinners will be champing at the bit, while farmers brace themselves for the droughts.

The last time New Zealand had an El Niño summer, in 2015/16, spinner Ajaz Patel took 43 wickets for the Stags, with his Aces counterpart Tarun Nethula netting 39. 

ND top order bat Bharat Popli (above) scored 1,000 runs in the Plunket Shield (1,149 runs from 17 innings at 67.58).

That was back when it was a double round robin (10 matches), so perhaps 800 runs is the new 1,000 runs in a first-class season benchmark.

So how did the other teams finish at the end of last summer – a season that was reshaped by Cyclone Gabrielle?

Here’s a glance back at the 2022/23 points table after the completion of the eight rounds (a draw in which some teams only play each other once):

1. Central Stags 101 points (five outright wins – claiming the title by most wins)

2. Canterbury 101 points (four outright wins)

3. Northern Districts 82 points (three outright wins)

4. Auckland Aces 66 points (two outright wins)

5. Wellington Firebirds 64 points (two outright wins)

6. Otago Volts 53 points (one outright win)

Now the slate’s wiped clean again, and we go again in a competition that began way back in 1907.

The beautiful silver and wood trophy had been presented by Lord Plunket in 1906, initially as a challenge shield for what was then four sides nationally: Otago, Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury (Central Districts formed in 1950 and Northern Districts arrived in 1956/57).

Canterbury had been given the shield initially on the basis that it was the best side in the land. There were only two Domestic first-class matches played that summer, and Canterbury was the only team that played in both of them.

Auckland made the first challenge in December 1907 to put the record straight.

Daniel Reese was Canterbury’s experienced first drop. He watched as the Aucklanders put on 539 in their first innings – more than enough to lift the Shield, and later recounted:

“The Aucklanders began to bat like a team of English professionals. It was playing for keeps all the time, and our bowlers soon found that bowling to them was a more exacting experience than meeting sides where more than half the batsmen would give it a go.

“In this first match I scored 26 and 42, but was accused of playing too rashly. Perhaps I did, for I hit sixes in each innings.”

Top order first-class batsmen throughout the country will now be having a quiet chuckle.

Some things never change.

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