Cricket: Great season but now bar goes up

Otago players (L-R) Jacob Duffy, Ian Butler and Nick Beard celebrate after winning the HRV T20 final against the Wellington Firebirds at University Oval in Dunedin on Sunday. (Photo by Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images)
Otago players (L-R) Jacob Duffy, Ian Butler and Nick Beard celebrate after winning the HRV T20 final against the Wellington Firebirds at University Oval in Dunedin on Sunday. (Photo by Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images)

What a thrill it was to watch Otago complete a near-perfect twenty/20 season with a four-wicket win against Wellington in the final on Sunday.

The University Oval final lacked spark compared with some of the other games in the campaign but to win 10 games in a row was a remarkable achievement.

Wind the clock back two years and Otago, with more or less the same group of players, could not even manage a single win.

Set the time machine to 2008-09 and Otago was at the top of the pile. That's twenty/20 for you - it is a fickle game.

So, to achieve the consistency Otago produced this summer was a credit to everyone involved.

The bar goes up another notch now, though. The Volts have earned the right to contest the qualifying round of the Champions League later this year and thoughts immediately turn to how they might perform.

Otago's last appearance at the Champions League, in 2009, was a humbling experience. Despite high hopes, the side was well beaten in both its group games and returned feeling deflated.

From that 15-man squad, Craig Cumming and Warren McSkimming have retired, English professional Dimitri Mascarenhas played two matches for Wellington this season, Greg Todd has moved on and Matt Harvie had serious back problems which put an end to his career.

The rest are still available, should they be selected, so the team has a fairly settled look. Arguably, the 2012-13 squad is much stronger.

The Volts have qualified three imports for the two available slots. All-rounder Ryan ten Doeschate was the second-highest scorer in the tournament with 401 runs at an average of 50.12. If he is available, he is a certain starter.

James Fuller took four for 24 in the final and his ability to strike at the top was one of the keys to Otago's success. Unfortunately, he will probably miss the cut if Australian fast bowler Brett Lee is available.

Lee played one match for Otago and was impressive, taking one for 19 from four overs in a dead rubber against Canterbury. He is a world-class performer and too good to leave out.

Fuller would not be the only unlucky player. There would be plenty of other genuine selection dilemmas.

When you consider the likes of Black Caps Brendon and Nathan McCullum, Neil Wagner and Jimmy Neesham would come back into the side, the Volts team which took the park for the final would take on a very different complexion for the Champions League qualifiers.

Imagine this for a starting XI: Hamish Rutherford, Brendon McCullum (wk), Neil Broom, Aaron Redmond, Ryan ten Doeschate, Nathan McCullum, Jimmy Neesham, Neil Wagner, Brett Lee, Nick Beard, Jacob Duffy.

In that side, there would not be room for the captain, Derek de Boorder. He is a great man to have padded up and coming in when there is a crisis. He also gaps the ball perhaps better than anyone else in the team. But Otago would be a stronger side if Brendon McCullum took the gloves.

You could not possibly leave out Jacob Duffy after the season he has had, while Neil Wagner can be expensive but he also has the handy knack of picking up wickets.

They would take the new ball with Lee, so that means one of the all-rounders would have to miss out. Nathan McCullum's economic offspin, explosive batting and experience would be a huge asset, so either Ian Butler or Jimmy Neesham would have to carry the drinks.

Both performed with distinction for Otago during the campaign, so you might have to toss a coin to separate them.

Left-arm spinner Nick Beard was Otago's best-performed bowler and the joint competition leading wicket-taker with 15 wickets at an average of 12.73 and the excellent economy rate of 5.96. Duffy also took 15 wickets.

Beard should be among the first few names scribbled down on the team sheet.

Punishing middle-order batsman Michael Bracewell and offspinner Mark Craig would be handy back up alongside Butler and de Boorder.

Fairly sure you can play four

Fairly sure you can play four imports in CL. So Fuller and Lee could both play.

My 11 would look like this: McCullum, Rutherford, Redmond, Broom, ten Doeschate, McCullum, Neesham, Butler, Lee, Fuller, Beard.