By David Nagel
Eight long years of heartache has come to an end for West Gippsland cricket after the Warriors reigned supreme in a tense Country Week grand final against Warragul at Preston City Oval on Friday.
A classic square drive from man-of-the-match Aaron Avery completed a clean sweep for the Warriors, who rode a strong team spirit and valuable contributions from many to the ultimate prize.
Captain Dom Paynter could not have been more proud of his side.
“It’s a big thrill. I’ve been on a few of these things now and never had much luck, things seem to go against you, but we played really well as a team and won the key moments during the week,” Paynter said.
“We were positive that we had a team that could be competitive but you still need blokes to step up at the right times and we had blokes do that all week. I think every player will walk away from this week with something to hang their hat on, that they made a contribution to the win and that makes it even more special.”
“It’s a real feather in their caps that they made the commitment and now come away with the ultimate reward – I couldn’t be prouder right now.”
The Warriors remained unbeaten for the week, with a first round bye keeping Paynter and his boys fresh for a big week ahead.
The team began its quest for glory in the field, the combination of Aaron Avery (3/23 off 7), Matt Hutchinson (2/15 off 9) and Cardinia off-spinner Travis Wheller (2/18 off 7.5) keeping Seymour (139) quiet at Melton on Tuesday.
Russ Lehman (81 not out) then opened and anchored the reply, the Warriors finishing on 5/255 with Paynter (69) and Avery (27) chipping in with some valuable late runs.
Avery (4/24 off 6.2) once again dominated with the ball on Wednesday, with Scott Clark (2/18 off 7) and Wheller (1/10 off 6) helping to keep Colac (145) at bay before Hutchinson (151) produced one of the great knocks in WGCA history.
Hutchy flayed the ball to all parts of Elsternwick Oval, smashing his huge score from just 94 balls in 114 minutes of mayhem. The Pakenham trio of Jason Williams (58), Rob Elston (47 not out) and Paynter (32) had the best seats in the house as Hutchinson led the Warriors to 9/359, gaining crucial bonus points.
Thursday’s match against Central Gippsland would decide the Warriors’ fate – a delay of more than two hours seeing the match begin at 12.30pm and reduced to 32 overs per side.
Central Gippsland got off to a flyer, but the slow bowling of Mark Cooper (2/32 off 7), Williams (2/29 off 6) and 18-year-old whiz kid Wheller (1/18 off 7) pulled back the momentum heading into the tea break.
The Warriors would need to chase down a competitive 164 to keep their dream alive.
The top three of Hutchinson (40), Spicer (40) and Cooper (30) kept their side in the contest before Chris ‘Wombat’ Bright (63 off 43 balls) played a blinder.
Wombat was brutal, crashing seven fours and three sixes in the most crucial 50 minutes on the contest.
The Warriors would finish on 6/207 and book a place in Friday’s final against Warragul – who possessed a lively spearhead in Luke Radford.
Warragul won the toss and batted, surprising to some with the Preston City Oval renowned for giving early assistance to fast bowlers.
The WGCA pounced, suffocating Warragul with some terrific bowling and brilliant fielding.
Paynter (3/3 off 2.1), Williams (2/21 off 5), Hutchinson (2/26 off 10) and Lehman (2/28 off 10) would all claim multiple wickets but the performance of Wheller (1/20 off 10) was special to say the least.
Wheller took the ball with Warragul dangerman Sam Batson (22 off 49) at the crease and immediately nullified his influence.
From his 39 balls he was scored off just twice, with five maidens giving a true indication of his control. Some great catching from Avery and Paynter, and some desperate work from Bright, inspired the Warriors to keep the opposition to the modest total of 143.
Radford, well he was quick alright … nudging 140kph and keeping the Warriors on their toes as they started their reply.
Hutchinson (17), Cooper (20) and Elston (26) all relished the challenge, but the Warriors needed a hero and Avery (32 not out) stood tall. He crafted a wonderful innings, sharing a critical 39-run partnership with Williams (13) to take his team to the brink of victory.
That classic square drive – off Radford – saw the Warriors earn a very well-deserved victory.
Paynter praised the overall team performance before any other, but did have special praise for the innings of Hutchinson and the week-long efforts of Wheller.
“Hutchy’s hundred was ridiculous, one of the best I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“It probably worked in our favour that we only had one recognised opener at the start of the week, and with the bowlers doing well it allowed us to throw Hutchy in and get ahead of the curve. And Trav, well he took to country week like a fish to water, he changed his pace up and rarely got hit for a boundary, he’s got a big future and that’s great for the competition.”
For more on the Warriors’ Country Week campaign, see pages 43 and 45 of this week’s Gazette.