Big hits, big innings under big fig tree

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Spring is well and truly among us. The days are longer, the weather is warmer, and a sporting fan’s thoughts turn to cricket. In Sydney, there’s no better place for a season opener than North Sydney Oval.

A far cry from the concrete jungles that are modern stadia, there’s an old world charm about the ground, with its cream painted grandstands and green roofs.

At the southern end is the two-level Macartney Stand. To the west, running long and straight, is the O’Reilly Stand. At the north-west is the Duncan Thompson Stand, a low-elevation stand with the players’ pavilion at the top. Next is the Mollie Dive Stand, a small members’ stand with a glassed-in corporate room.

Next to it is the iconic fig tree, its branches reaching over the boundary fence to cover the northern field of play. The north-east of the ground holds the Bob Stand, rebuilt here after having been moved from the SCG when the Cricket Ground was redeveloped in the 1980s. The east has a grass hill, and then on the south-eastern corner are a few small sheds and the Ken Irvine Scoreboard, an old manual board with rolling numbers and metal nameplates.

It’s a small ground, and the pitch is always a belter. It’s a great ground for one-day cricket, there’s sure to be plenty of runs and plenty of big hits. And there certainly were on Sunday when New South Wales hosted Victoria.

An early shower saw play start ten minutes late, the game reduced to 49 overs a side. Winning the toss and sending Victoria in, the Blues held the advantage early.

Aaron Finch was back in the pavilion quickly, and the introduction of Moises Henriques to the attack saw Matthew Wade, David Hussey and Cameron White in quick succession join him there. The Bushrangers were 4 for 78 in the 20th over, at risk of an early capitulation.

But Brad Hodge was still there. Largely forgotten in Australian cricket circles these days, certainly forgotten by national selectors, the veteran Victorian reminded the cricket world that he’s still around.

Henriques’ devastating six-over spell had claimed three Victorian scalps, but Blues’ captain Steven O’Keefe made the call to save Henriques for later, removing him from the attack and bringing himself in to bowl some spin. And the Bushrangers were let off the hook, as Hodge smashed his first six and a couple more boundaries in the next over.

Andrew McDonald gave Hodge support in a 70-run partnership, but when the red-headed captain departed for 27, the Bushrangers had lost half their wickets, were still under five an over, and it was hard to see them building a competitive total.

But Hodge found a worthy partner in Rob Quiney, and the latter overs of the innings saw Hodge and Quiney hit out, the run rate receiving a timely boost as the ball was hit to all parts of the ground, balls being hit to the ropes or over the fence into the crowd.

Hodge finished with a well-made 144, Quiney finished with 91, both being dismissed looking for quick runs at the death as the Bushrangers powered to 7 for 317 off their 49 overs.

There’s a family-friendly atmosphere at domestic one-day games, and the kids were out there in numbers. Players were followed like pied pipers by autograph seekers. Makeshift games with bins as wickets were played in the concourse in front of the Duncan Thompson Stand and on the hill.

The Blues-mobile, the merchandise stand, was doing brisk business. A Turkish food stand next to the fig tree was also doing strong trade.

The Sydney Sixers, set to debut in the new T20 league this summer, was handing out fixture cards and selling membership packages, as their mascot dog joined a lunch-break race and enjoyed plenty of attention as it was paraded around the ground. In contrast, cross-town rivals Sydney Thunder were conspicuous in their invisibility.

The sun was shining brightly as New South Wales began their innings. Nick Maddinson didn’t last long, but Daniel Smith was joined by debutant Tim Cruickshank and the runs flowed freely.

Daniel Smith had lost his Blues contract, and been overlooked for the wicket-keeping gloves, but weight of runs had forced his recall to the team. Smith enjoys the big hits, and a small ground like North Sydney Oval suits his game just fine. Smith may not be the fastest runner between the wickets, but when you’re hitting balls over the fence with regularity, that hardly matters.

Smith and Cruickshank put on 167 for the second wicket at well better than a run a ball, the Blues’ score shooting further ahead of the Duckworth-Lewis par score with each passing over. In the end, it took a harsh lbw call to end the partnership, with Cruickshank being given his marching orders with 75 runs on the board despite being well down the pitch.

The number 13 is unlucky for some, and it was for Simon Katich. The former Australian rep had been in the headlines after his comments about captain Michael Clarke. Katich struggled to make an impact, never looking comfortable before being dismissed for 13.

But the strong ovation he received from the crowd, both as he entered and departed the arena, was an indication there is plenty of support for Katich among the public.

With the result seemingly a foregone conclusion well before the end, the clock having ticked well past six o’clock and the light beginning to fade after what had been a long day, the crowd thinned out noticeably as the evening went on. The crowd, about 1,500 at its peak, was down to only a few hundred by the time the winning runs were scored.

By the time Katich was out, Smith had brought up his century, and the runs were coming thick and fast. Ben Rohrer came in and stayed with Smith until the job was done, and the big hits kept coming. 15 boundaries and 11 sixes were the highlights of Smith’s innings. The 150 was passed, and then the record for the highest individual score for NSW in a domestic one-day game. And, an entertainer to the end, Smith finished the job with two sixes in the final over to complete a seven wicket win with more than eight overs to spare, finishing on 185 not out.

An entertaining game, with two great individual knocks, at a pleasant venue, and a good win for the home team. What could be a more pleasant way for a sports fan to enjoy a Sunday?

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