After 6 months of some good, some bad, and some unlucky cricket, the ACES ended their 2022/23 season down in Nelson with a rescheduled round five match against Central Stags.
Going into this match the ACES were sitting at 5th on the table, with a win potentially lifting them to 3rd at the very best, but otherwise with no hope of defending their 2021/22 title.
A draw was an even less appealing option as they were at least assured that they couldn’t drop to sixth place, even with a loss. Therefore, a win was the best option on paper, and the ideal way to see Will Somerville off in his last match.
The Stags on the other hand, had everything to play for, with a win plus a couple of extra points allowing them to leapfrog Canterbury and claim the shield.
With a draw being the result that nobody wanted, it was therefore demoralising for both teams to watch the first day get rained off.
Under some angry looking skies the teams finally made it out on the park on day two where stand-in ACES skipper Ben Horne won the toss and elected to bowl first.
Matt Gibson, leading the attack for the first time in just his second match, grabbed two early breakthroughs, ripping out Boyle and Hay before the Stags regrouped.
The Stags batters never really got into a groove as the ACES kept striking but they also avoided outright collapses, meaning the Auckland were never really able to press home the advantage of bowling first.
Once man-of-the-moment Josh Clarkson started teeing off, the Stags were able to put pressure back on the bowlers and they ended up declaring on 296/9, earning two batting points and thus needing a win to take the Shield.
Gibson and Ryan Harrison were the pick of the bowlers with 2/53 and 2/26 respectively. Louis Delport and Somerville also chipped in.
In reply the ACES never seemed troubled, perhaps content knowing that they could set the pace and make Stags sweat a little bit.
Martin Guptill, playing his first and only Plunket Shield match this season, and Will O’Donnell cruised to 87/1 before Guptill was dismissed for 45. Young Quinn Sunde then looked utterly unperturbed before Ben Horne called an early declaration at 1/161. O’Donnell ended on 76* and Sunde on 39*.
This kind of declaration is likely to confuse average laymen but it was the only good option that Ben Horne had. One day was already lost and day three had two thirds of the overs washed out. By declaring, Horne knew that Central Stags would have to set the ACES a reachable target to give themselves a shot at bowling them out.
For the ACES this meant that a final day chase on a decent batting deck was almost guaranteed if the declaration was well timed. A result was almost guaranteed.
And thus, Stags came out with serious intent in their second dig. Boyle, Cleaver and Clark all got quick runs and a predictable, if sporting, declaration came at 156/5.
Somerville, in his last outing, was dealt to but as is the spinner’s advantage, picked up three wickets in the process, taking his season’s tally up to 26, 7 more than the next best.
The ACES were set 292 to win. The carrot was dangled, and it was really up to the ACES whether they wanted to chase it or not.
In the end, Stags’ left arm pacer Ray Toole took the choice out of their hands. He scythed through the ACES top order. No batter got over 22 as his new ball burst accounted for first innings heroes, O’Donnell, Guptill and Sunde.
He then returned to rip through the lower middle order and by the time George Worker fell to Dudding, the dye was cast.
ACES folded for 103, the Stags won by 188 runs and beat Canterbury to win the Plunket Shield.
This wasn’t an ideal end of the season for the ACES but it was perhaps synonymous with how their season had gone up til that point. Flashes of brilliance but without luck or form on their side.
They had done well post Christmas to rescue themselves from the bottom of both the Ford Trophy and Plunket Shield tables.
There will likely be better results next season as their young team grows and gains in confidence. All the building blocks are there and once the winter is finished, they’ll be looking to build a fortress in Auckland once again.