Greater depth key to Sparks’ successful season

Sparks batter Polly Inglis clips the ball away during a Hallyburton Johnstone Shield game against...
Sparks batter Polly Inglis clips the ball away during a Hallyburton Johnstone Shield game against Northern Districts at the University Oval earlier this month. Photos: Peter McIntosh
The Otago Sparks collected their fourth national title in 10 years with a four-wicket win against Wellington in the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield final in Dunedin on Sunday.

Cricket writer Adrian Seconi looks back at a season in which a different crop of players emerged.

The days of the Otago Sparks leaning on a very small group to tow them through the big games are over.

A different crop of players has emerged this summer.

That is not to say Suzie Bates is not instrumental in the side, or that White Ferns Hayley Jensen and Eden Carson are not as important in the lineup.

They are a vital cogs, no doubt.

But the Sparks are not leaning on the trio as heavily.

The Hallyburton Johnstone Shield final was a prime example.

Bates has carried the Sparks through big games like that in the past. But even the greats have off days. The veteran right-hander was dismissed for 16 at the top of the order.

That would have been like losing half your stack on the first hand previously. But the class of 2023-24 has a few more cards to play.

The middle of the Otago list A batting lineup was solid the whole campaign and came through again in the clutch.

Caitlin Blakely, who top-scored with 50, and captain Felicity Robertson (38) added 79 for the fourth wicket.

Polly Inglis helped seal the win with an undefeated knock of 35, and Olivia Gain timed her return to form perfectly with a momentum-changing knock of 42 from 38 balls.

The game may have slipped out of reach had Gain not come in and played with the sort of confidence only those who have a touch of X-factor can muster.

Blakely, who brought up her 100th list A game for Otago during the season, has transformed her game in the past three-four years.

And Inglis, who is closing in on the 100-game milestone as well, has made big strides with the wicketkeeping gloves and was Otago’s leading scorer in the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield.

Robertson scored 310 runs at 44.29 and also picked up 10 wickets at 22.20. Her aggressive captaincy also stood out.

But the star of the campaign was Emma Black. The right-arm swing bowler has added a little bit of extra zip this season.

The competition’s leading wicket-taker was in devastating form, nabbing 24 wickets at an average of 11.58.

Her ability to strike up top and pick up further wickets in her second and third spells was invaluable for the Sparks.

The 22-year-old’s case for higher honours is compelling now. Perhaps the only road block is she is a very similar bowler to Jess Kerr, who is the incumbent.

Black bowled brilliantly in tandem with Jensen during the final. They called the opening shots.

While Jensen did not finish up with a whole lot of the wickets in the campaign, she was making her way back from knee surgery and produced an impressive spell of one for 28 from 10 overs in the final.

Fellow seamer Molly Loe nabbed two wickets in the final and shone when she got opportunities. She missed a chunk of the season through injury as well.

White Ferns spinner Carson returned to some good form with 15 wickets at 18.27.

Sparks swing bowler Emma Black sends down a delivery during the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield...
Sparks swing bowler Emma Black sends down a delivery during the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield final at the University Oval on Sunday. Wellington batter Jess McFadyen prepares to scamper to other end.
The Sparks won four games in a row to make the final. The seven-wicket win against Northern Districts in Dunedin on February 3 was close to their best game of the season.

But the final had more drama and the Sparks had to rally several times.

The Sparks were in contention for the Super Smash title right up until their last round-robin game.

They hosted Northern Districts (94/1) and Sri Lankan international Chamari Athapaththu clouted 46 from 37 in a rain-affected match.

They chased a revised total of 87 from nine overs but were not able to build a significant partnership, or keep pace with the required run rate, and lost by 22 runs (DLS method).

Bates had a dominant tournament, scoring 398 runs at 56.86, and Black took 13 wickets at 16.62.

Season at a glance

Hallyburton Johnstone Shield

Placing: Champion

Record: Won 7, lost 3, 1 abandoned

Leading scorer: Polly Inglis, 324 at 54

Leading wicket-taker: Emma Black, 24 wkts at 11.58

Outstanding performance: Saffron Wilson whacked 109 from 97 balls

Best game: Edged Wellington by four-wickets in a tight final

Worst game: Lost to Canterbury by four-wickets in Rangiora

MVP: Black

Most improved: Inglis was a rock in the middle order and just as solid behind the stumps


Super Smash 

Placing: Fourth

Record: Won 5, lost 5

Leading scorer: Suzie Bates, 398 runs at 56.86

Leading wicket-taker: Emma Black, 13 wkts at 16.62

Outstanding performance: Molly Loe took four for 12 to help secure a 47-run win against Auckland

Best game: Dispatched Auckland by 47-runs at Molyneux Park on Jan 1

Worst game: Lost to Canterbury by 76 runs at Molyneux Park on Jan 3

MVP: Bates

Most improved: Loe battled back from an early injury and shone