It comes to this.
North Otago v Southland. Winner takes it all.
The stage is set for a magnificent Hawke Cup qualifier at Centennial Park this weekend.
North Otago and Southland have identical records – two outright wins, one first-innings win, 32 points – and the team that earns more points this weekend will earn a Hawke Cup challenge next month.
“Both teams have been going reasonably well,” was North Otago captain Craig Smith’s classically understated assessment of the epic clash when he spoke to the Oamaru Mail this week.
“We said to our boys last weekend that, yep, Southland are going well but if we want to get ourselves a challenge, and give ourselves a chance to win the Hawke Cup, we’re going to be playing a very decent side.
“This is a great chance to test ourselves. And if we are good enough to get through, it will mean we’ve had a good, tough game to prepare for a challenge.”
Smith has a fair sense of what makes the visiting side tick, having spent six years in Invercargill, and has plenty of respect for Southland.
“They’re pretty hard-nosed, and they’ve got some experience in there.
“The thing they have over the other teams in the zone is that they’ve posted some big totals, and they’ve got guys there who can score plenty, so that’s the big challenge for us.”
Partly because its bowling attack is so lethal, North Otago has not really had to spend a lot of time at the batting crease this summer.
That will almost certainly need to be rectified this weekend, and Smith knows it is time for the batting order to deliver.
“It’s probably been our Achilles heel, but we’re definitely capable. When you look at our batting order, we’ve got handy guys all the way down the order. There’s lots of talent there, so it’s possibly just more of a mentality thing. We’ve got to believe that we can do it.
“It probably reflects the pitches we play on a little bit. We’re just not used to batting time on pitches that do a bit, but if we get a good deck, we need to cash in and bat all day.”
Both sides are deep in talent, and both have a bona fide superstar in the ranks.
Southland brings the hottest batsman in the Hawke Cup, Harsh Visavidiya, who followed up three consecutive half-centuries with a sparkling 199 against South Canterbury last weekend.
North Otago, of course, counters with the peerless Francois Mostert, coming off a 13-wicket bag in an absolute crushing of Mid Canterbury.
Mostert is on 30 wickets for the season – second-best in North Otago history, behind his own 56 in 2015-16 – and local newspapers are running out of superlatives for the super South African.
“The biggest thing for me is that he just keeps going. The ticker he’s got is phenomenal,” Smith said.
“Having a guy that can bowl upwards of 15 overs in a spell is pretty unreal.
“We need to make sure we don’t over-cook him, because it’s hard to get the ball out of his hand. No matter the situation, he just wants to bowl, and his knowledge and planning and field-setting makes it easy for the captain.”
Mostert grabbed five wickets in Ashburton as Mid Canterbury crumbled for 55, and tore through the line-up in the home side’s second dig to take eight for 31 – the third-best figures in North Otago history.
In between, North Otago rattled up 175 on its way to completing a remarkable innings victory in a shade under six hours.
“I’ve never had a game that finished inside a day,” Smith said.
“We had in the back of our mind that rain was coming on Sunday, so we probably pushed things along when we were batting a little bit.”
North Otago will be missing former captain Jordan Horrell this weekend, but is otherwise at full strength for the biggest game in Oamaru in two years.