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Wellington Firebirds retain New Zealand's national T20 title

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Wellington, Feb 13 (IANS) The Wellington Firebirds have become just the second team to win New Zealand’s men’s domestic T20 title back-to-back after both Dream11 Super Smash Grand Finals ended in exciting last-over finishes at a buzzing Basin Reserve here.

Clinical, calm opener Devon Conway thrilled the 5,000-strong crowd as he hit the winning boundary with two balls to spare as the defending champions chased down 175 for eight wickets from the Canterbury Kings.

Looking to win their first trophy since the first national T20 competition in 2005-06, the hungry Kings kept themselves in it with the ball despite losing the bowling services of Daryl Mitchell after the all-rounder pulled a side muscle whilst leaping outstretched for an attempted catch, having bowled just one over for four runs.

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Like the women’s final beforehand, it was a compelling, oscillating grand final in which the advantage was wrested back and forth between the two adversaries after Firebirds captain Michael Bracewell sent the Kings in.

The Kings had started well, Ken McClure blasting the first six of the final off Hamish Bennett, but Logan van Beek pulled it back for the capital and had McClure caught.

The Kings had finished the power play at 55/1 and, with their vaunted top order, the Firebirds would finish their own power play at 61/2 after having lost both young gun Finn Allen — who skied a catch off McConchie on 16, just after having topped 500 runs in his rookie season for the side — and a scoreless Tom Blundell who attempted to cut a wide delivery from Ed Nuttall (2-32) only to be caught by a dangerous diving Chad Bowes.

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Earlier, Bowes (36 off 21) had played a key role with the bat for the Kings in a 65-run second-wicket stand with Mitchell (35 off 24) as they laid a platform for their side, before McConchie played yet another captain’s knock to top score with 44 across the back 12 overs.

The class of Mitchell had been a big loss after he looped leg-spinner Peter Younghusband (2-25) into Conway’s sharp hands and the Firebirds began fighting their way back with tight bowling producing three wickets in 11 balls.

Spinner Bracewell had put himself on an unconverted hat-trick in the unsettling 14th, Leo Carter caught and then claiming the big wicket of Cam Fletcher — fresh off a New Zealand fifth-wicket record with Mitchell in the Elimination Final, but gone on Saturday for no score after a false stroke produced a return catch. The captain bowled himself for the solitary over for figures of 2-3.

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But the Kings got a boost when Henry Shipley, in just his second game of the campaign, strode in and smacked 29 off just 15 balls, caning Neesham for two sixes before the all-rounder answered back with his wicket in the 17-run 18th.

With just two balls left in the innings, van Beek (3-28) finally put a stop to McConchie, then put himself on a hat-trick after a fine diving catch from Troy Johnson removed Matt Henry as well. Todd Astle poked away a single to avoid becoming the third victim on the last ball of the innings as the Kings walked in with a workable total to defend.

The Firebirds had needed almost nine an over from the outset and, while the early loss of the prolific Allen and then Blundell was a double blow, Troy Johnson injected a quick 28 to give the Firebirds a momentum boost at a key moment in the chase.

With three overs to go, a new man in all-rounder Jamie Gibson at the crease, and death bowler Will Williams taking a deep breath as he came back into the attack, the result still hung in the balance – a neck and neck contest with the Firebirds needing 29 off the final three overs.

But with his fourth consecutive half century – 50, 61 not out, 91 not out and now 93 not out, Conway could be relied upon to loft the ball over cover when it counted. He would bat masterfully throughout the innings, calmly navigating a frantic last couple of overs from the Kings the saw fielders colliding, and runs scrambled, to steer his side to the championship – unbeaten off 63 balls as he hit the winning runs.

Allen and Conway finish as the top two men’s batsmen in the league this season, with 512 runs from 11 innings (6 half-centuries) and 455 from 10 innings (5 half centuries) respectively, while Central Stag Blair Tickner remained the top wicket-taker with 17 from 11 games at 20.53, ahead of Matt Henry’s 14 from 11 at 24.64.

The Canterbury drought would continue for at least another year.

–IANS

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