Firebirds lose on thrilling final day in Dunedin

The Wellington Firebirds have fallen short on a thrilling final day in Dunedin, losing by three wickets to the Otago Volts in round seven of the Plunket Shield.

Coming off an innings defeat, the Otago Volts continued their quest for a first win of a tough first-class season, starting with a big morning for the hosts in Dunedin.

For the Firebirds, Tom Blundell was already set on a half century, but he lost his seventh-wicket partner Ollie Newton after the first hour, Jacob Duffy getting him caught in the deep.

Newton (19) had assisted Blundell in getting the Firebirds past the 200 mark. Now, with the Firebirds’ interim lead at 226*, if the Volts could take another couple of quick wickets it would bring the southerners right back into the game.

Just two overs down the track, Matt Bacon continued his barnstorming performance, claiming his ninth for the match when a wafting Jeetan Patel was caught behind: 236 for eight.

Blundell had reached 90* when a 50-run ninth-wicket stand with Iain McPeake (20) came to a halt, McPeake caught in the deep to give Bacon 10 for the match.

New man Hamish Bennett took it upon himself to support Blundell to three figures, the number eleven punching two effective, if slightly ungainly, boundaries off Duffy to post the Firebirds’ 300. A single off the penultimate ball of the over returned Blundell to the strike, who showed how it’s done, advancing down the pitch to smite a four to take him to 99*.

Bennett now had to deal with Warren Barnes, and managed a single off the first ball. Blundell then answered with a single off his own next ball to raise his fifth century for the Firebirds (152 balls, 226 mins, 14 x fours) and sixth of his overall first-class career.

The declaration at nine down promptly followed, setting the Volts a chase of 307 to win with just over two sessions remaining. Bacon (above) finished 4-71 for a match analysis of 10-144, with Duffy picking up 3-88.

The Volts now knew exactly what they needed to do if they were to break their season duck, but it was still anyone’s game. They would head to lunch having made a fair start at 44 for one. Cam Hawkins had fallen early to Newton, but powerhouse Hamish Rutherford was still there, another 263 required.

By tea, they had lost only another two wickets but Rutherford had been one of the victims. Given out leg before to Rachin Ravindra on 45, it was a gutting blow to the luckless opener. He had been enjoying a second-wicket stand with Mitch Renwick that reached 80 runs. Renwick had been struggling for runs, but now the top order man looked to be back in the groove.

After losing Rutherford, Renwick moved the score from 107 for two to 149 before Bennett enticed a catch. Renwick was gone on 66, his best score for Otago by 20 runs, just shy of his career best of 71 for the Central Stags. The breakthrough innings eluded him one more time, but he had played his part.

The foundation was built, if the Volts middle order could settle in. Now the experienced pair of Brad Wilson and Anaru Kitchen got starts of 36 and 31 respectively, holding the fort for almost an hour and a half together until Bennett and Patel claimed them both in quick succession.

At 209 for five, the Volts needed a further 98 runs. Had they forgotten how to win? Or would this be the evening they finally got to sing the song in whites again? Number six Nathan Smith (above) was in form, they still had hope. He was joined by Christi Viljoen, another player capable of giving it some tap if they needed to pick up the pace (and they did).

Together they reached their 50-stand off 64 balls: another 48 runs and they would get across the line. Patel was meanwhile going through his box of tricks at one end in a marathon spell; the pacemen taking turns at the other.

The shadows were getting long across the ground, but boundaries were beginning to flow freely until, with just 23 runs left to find, Viljoen was caught trying to smash the ball on the leg-side. It ended a lively 75-run stand for the sixth wicket.

Newbie Max Chu joined Smith on 37*. When he found the fence off Newton, the Volts’ target was down to 13 runs, three overs remaining in the schedule. Surely, this time? Chu took a two off Patel to push them past 300 on the board. Just the six runs needed now. But last ball of the over, Patel had his wicket.

The batsmen having crossed, captain Duffy would face the next over against Newton and got off the mark immediately. Another single next ball for Smith: four to win, now. And another Duffy single. The watching Volts, who had been on tenterhooks in the player’s glasshouse, began to relax. A dot ball, and then Smith smashed the winning boundary. A win by three wickets, a win at last for the Otago Volts in the first-class season of 2018/19.

The Firebirds take-on Canterbury in their final match of the season on Sunday at the Basin Reserve.