The Oakleigh Oval is nestled between a historic cemetery on one wing and a Primary School on the other……A century old Grandstand – the Wilkinson Pavilion – overlooks the northern-end goals…..Traffic rattles by endlessly on nearby Warrigal Road……..

Wangaratta are squaring off here, against old rivals Central Gippsland in today’s Melbourne Country Week Division 3 Final. The pair met on Monday and only three runs separated them. This promises to be another tight affair.

Admittedly, we’re a pair of old fogies ( there’s a combined age of 150 years between us) but it took only a minute to make a snap decision to make the trip down.

We head off at 6am, and peel back old Country Week memories, negotiating a lengthy traffic snarl on the Tullamarine, and the curling South-Eastern Freeway, before arriving at our destination.

We’re just in time to see Yarrawonga’s left-arm medium-pacer Angus McMillan entice a snick from CG opener James Campbell in his second over.

Both quickies are throwing everything into it, but there’s a sign of aggressive intent from the batsmen. The new CW rules dictate that the field must be well up in the opening overs, which gives encouragement to them to hit through the ball.

Just when you think it may be time for burly ‘Gus’ to have a spell, he breaks through again, and the ‘keeper Mitch Giggins jubilantly hurls the pill in the air. It’s 2/22 and the WDCA are on top.

Having five spinners as part of their bowling armoury has brought about a change in Wang’s attacking strategy this week, as they have not only restricted the run-rate but proved reliable wicket-takers.

Skipper Braden soon opts for the left-armers- the beanstalk Joe Thomas and diminutive Saif Zaib.

Who the hell’s this bloke Zaib , I hear you asking.IMG_3136

Well, he’s a 19 year-old of Pakistani extraction, who has already played County cricket for Northamptonshire, and has spent this summer with CAW club New City. Another change to CW regulations permits Associations to include one player from a neighboring competition.

He’s a gun, as you’d expect – an economical tweaker and stylish left-hand bat. But the two star CG boys at the crease – Mahmood and Qreshi – are prepared to sit on the spinners and, with wristy strokeplay, accumulate runs via placement and excellent running.

The run-rate’s well in hand, but you begin to wonder where the next wicket is going to come from. Suddenly, Josh Newton swoops on a leg glance from Qreshi and, with a direct hit, finds him short of his ground.

It was a stunning piece of play that seemed to change to course of the game. Six runs later, Joe Thomas breaks through the defence of right-hander Geoff McKinlay, to have CG 4/73.IMG_3132

From then on in proves a grind for CG, as the spinners keep things in check. Zaib’s 10 overs cost 22, Thomas wheels down his 10 to finish with 1/31, Josh Newton’s wrist spinners conjure a wicket and the boy from Jersey, Greta’s Tom Nightingale trundles well in his 7 overs, to grab 1/26.

Again it was Newton who produced another piece of magic in the field to send Hanif Mahmood on his way for a well-made 54.

Angus McMillan’s return to the bowling crease saw him clean up the final three wickets, to finish with the figures – 5/37 off nine overs, as CG were dismissed for 175 in the 47th over.

Having totalled over 200 in each of their previous games, you’d imagine that the victory target would be a piece of cake.

But that’s never the case in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a Country Week Final.

There’d been a delay in the CG innings through rain, and in the tardiness of covering the wicket, it had become a touch spicy.

It should have dried out sufficiently by the time Wang’s openers Jordan Blades and Josh Newton broached the crease, but there certainly seemed to be plenty of life in the track.

Full marks to the opposition quicks. Both bowled with venom and the ‘ oohs and aahs’ from the fielders gave the impression that they were right on top.

Runs had dried right up and both batsmen had their moments. It was Newton who was first to go when he fended at a delivery outside off – 1/17.

The little fellah, Zaib, copped a fair bit of cheek from the boys on the field, but seemed undeterred. He certainly looked all class, but in similar fashion to what he’d done all week, fell to a soft dismissal, driving to the leg side and being caught at wide mid-on for 10.

The left-handed Blades had done an excellent job of absorbing the early pressure. He’d taken advantage of the short, straight boundaries to drive superbly for a few boundaries, and his 26 was a valuable contribution, but at 3/53, us old codgers nearly had the WDCA dead and buried.

Particularly when Matt Casey fell 10 runs later, with the run-rate slowing to a trickle.

Enter Kent Braden and Tom Nightingale, who both assumed complete control. The bowling was still tight, and runs were at a premium, but the occasional short delivery was treated harshly.

We urged them to up the run-rate, but there was nary a moment when they panicked or were forced into a rash shot.

The runs kept coming ; the target always seemed manageable and they were the epitome of patience . Nightingale’s stylishness was a contrast to the brutishness of the left-handed Braden’s stroke-play.

For all his individual achievements in cricket, this was, I feel, Braden’s finest hour.IMG_3137

Calm and unhurried, he took his team to within an ace of victory. Until he could resist no longer, and pulled a short ball which, if it had reached its destination, would have got them over the line.

Unfortunately, he was caught on the boundary for 53.

It was left to the impressive Nightingale ( 53*) and his Greta team-mate Nick Pell to deliver the victory spoils, as Wangaratta coasted home with 26 balls to spare.

When we finally make our back onto Warrigal Road for the run home, after tending to a flat battery and becoming disoriented at one stage, there was plenty to yap about.

After all it was the WDCA’s first Country Week victory in 10 years….. and we agreed that Angus McMillan was a deserved Man of the Match ( although we discussed the merits of a few other contenders).

But overall we hailed the contribution over the Week, as one of the most even team efforts for years………IMG_3135


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