For someone who is woeful at pre-tournament predictions, I just can’t help myself. For the record, my predicted winner last year came last (Otago), the actual winner I had coming second bottom (Wellington) and my predicted wooden spooner came qualified second for the finals (CD). Surely, I can’t possibly be that bad again…
Last summer’s table saw a top four/bottom two divide which didn’t paint a full picture as Otago and Auckland were competitive in quite a few of their eight defeats each. Closing those close games shapes as the biggest challenge for not just them but all six sides as this competition should be as close as it’s ever been. The decline in overseas imports over recent years – reinforced by COVID19 restrictions – is a welcome progression for a competition that more than holds its own.
Top Run-scorer: Sean Solia (Auckland)
Top Wicket-taker: Matt Henry (Canterbury) and Nathan Smith (Wellington)
Game to watch: The return of T20 cricket to the far north is a welcome one and when the ‘Brave’ host Wellington in the closing rounds on Jan 16, it feels like a match that will have significant playoff implications.
- Canterbury Kings. Playing some pretty special cricket lately which has been built on the back of solid performances by lesser-known players (Will Williams, Ed Nuttall, Chad Bowes etc). The international schedule does them no favours as they’re unlikely to see too much of Latham, Nicholls and Mitchell but the train will keep rolling. Expect Matt Henry, Cam Fletcher and Cole McConchie to be among the best in the comp. With no Conway to deny them in the big dance, they’re too good for Wellington under lights at Hagley on the final day.
- Wellington Firebirds. Not in amazing red ball form but the standard-setter in this format in recent years and I don’t see any reason why that won’t continue. Having Jimmy Neesham and Finn Allen available for the majority of the comp is a huge win for them. Expect Nathan Smith to shine as well. Playing Canterbury twice this side of Christmas will give us a nice indication of where they’re at.
- Auckland Aces. Admittedly this is a bit of a stab in the dark as it’s hard to know what we’ll see from them. Ferguson, Guptill and Phillips add a lot when available (which will be a decent amount) and the signing of George Worker from CD is a very good one. I’d expect them to be slow starters but finish strongly. Their semi-final vs Wellington (which thanks to vagaries of the draw I’m predicting will be at Hagley) will be one of the best games of the season.
- Northern Brave. Don’t love the name but expect them to be in the mix. The biggest name to watch here is Colin de Grandhomme. I wouldn’t just write off his International future yet, but I might if he doesn’t deliver here. Between MIQ stints and the Bangladesh tests, you won’t see many current Blackcaps turning out for ND but Ish Sodhi should and will be instrumental to their chances. The retirements of Anton Devcich and Dean Brownlie sees the top order look a touch on the green side but there’s talent there.
- Otago Volts. Not a bone in my body is happy about this prediction. If the bowling group (in particular Rae, Duffy, Rippon) can get some of the momentum and luck that eluded them last season, I certainly wouldn’t write them off. The top three of Broom, Rutherford and Kelly will need to consistently go big and if so, we’ll be in the mix and I’ll be gladly eating my words and sending some apologies! The first four games pre-Christmas (two each against CD and ND) are critical as it only gets harder from there.
- Central Stags. Picked them here last season as well and expect them to prove me wrong again. I like the way they go about their work and their bowling attack, if fit, is as good as anyone’s. The most important question for them will be with the bat. Ross Taylor, Will Young and George Worker leave an 850 run sized hole. Pressure will be on Tom Bruce while Josh Clarkson could light up this competition.
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