In April this year, when the Canterbury cricket team uncorked champagne bottles in the middle of the McLean Park in Napier and danced around with the Plunket Shield in their midst, it was not only to celebrate that win. It was also to toast the province's tremendous achievements across formats.
Canterbury cricket fans in New Zealand have had plenty to rejoice over the last few months. The Peter Fulton-coached side finished as champions of the Ford Trophy (50 overs) and, most recently, the Plunket Shield competition (4-day tournament) in April.
For a team that was assured of the Plunket Shield title even before the last two group stage rounds, apart from a dominating 8-wicket win in the final to clinch the Ford Trophy, the 2020/21 Super Smash title would have been the icing on the cake.
However, a magical performance from Devon Conway saw the southpaw's side, the Wellington Firebirds, cross the finish line in style. The loss, though, seemed only a small blip in what was a near-perfect domestic season for Canterbury.
Canterbury's thorough dominance over the past few months was further highlighted with four of their star players, namely Tom Latham, Daryl Mitchell, Henry Nicholls, and Matt Henry, earning contracts with the Black Caps for the 2021-22 season.
For a man who took over the role of Canterbury's head coach only in August 2020, and that too after giving up a spot in the New Zealand men's team's support staff unit, Fulton has undoubtedly changed the fortunes of his province.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Fulton shed light on what's been a terrific domestic season for Canterbury, Daryl Mitchell's evolution as a player, and more.
"Not easy to win two titles in a domestic season. NZ has three competitions, to win two titles and finish right up in the final of the T20 was a really impressive season, credit to the support staff and players. Hard to top, but a part of me thinks what if. We got beaten in the T20 final by Wellington, Devon Conway won them the game, so hard to think what if we had won that as well."
Canterbury's push for the title across formats was fuelled by a perfect mix of Black Caps stars, the ebullience of youth, and the steadfast credentials of domestic players.
Fulton particularly stressed how the presence of senior team stars almost always has a positive influence on youngsters and local players who are keen to take the leap and push for a spot in the national side.
"It helps the young players especially. It probably also helps the players who are dominant at the domestic level and aspire to play international cricket. It helps show them what the standards are at the international level."
"We’re lucky to have Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls, Matt Henry and now Daryl Mitchell who had a great last season. Credit to the domestic setup in New Zealand that players like Mitchell, Devon Conway, Will Young, Kyle Jamieson have played at the domestic circuit and have now transitioned to the international level."
"Hopefully, he doesn't get pigeon-holed as a middle-order player" - Peter Fulton on Daryl Mitchell
One of New Zealand cricket's newest stars, Mitchell made the switch from Northern District to Canterbury for the 2020/21 season, and he was at the heart of the team's tremendous success.
In the Super Smash competition, Mitchell top-scored for Canterbury with 374 runs at a strike rate of 135 in addition to 10 wickets to his name. Mitchell continued his fine run in the Plunket Shield competition, scoring 288 runs from five matches at an average of 48, while with the ball, he scalped 17 wickets, and his all-round show played a significant hand in the side's title win.
Fulton reserved special praise for the all-rounder while also heroing Mitchell's ability to produce match-winning performances anywhere in the batting order.
"He was outstanding right from the first game. Every game he played he contributed with bat or ball, and he’s done something similar for the Black Caps. He’s putting pressure on the selectors to pick him as an all-rounder in all formats, not just the Tests."
One of the notable changes Canterbury made during the season was to promote Mitchell to No.3, and Fulton shed light on how the all-rounder's threat with the bat played a role in that decision.
"For NZ he’s batted at 6 or 7 in all formats. For Canterbury, at the end of the T20 campaign, he was batting at No.3. That was purely because he’s such a dangerous player and we wanted him to face as many balls as possible. One of his biggest strengths is his versatality, he can bat in the middle order and finish the innings, but he can bat up the order and he’s a fantastic player of fast bowling as well."
With Mitchell now having earned his maiden full-season contract with the Black Caps, Fulton, who played 23 Tests, 49 ODIs, and 12 T20Is for the senior team, expressed hope at the all-rounder getting a chance to showcase his talent a lot more with the senior team.
"Hopefully he doesn’t get pigeon-holed as a middle-order player, especially in Test cricket, he can push his way into the team as a genuine batsman and not just as an all-rounder."
Not only did Canterbury's quest to end the title drought come to fruition this season, but it also helped make the Black Caps selectors' job easier to an extent. While four of Canterbury's best earning contracts is indeed a matter of pride for Fulton, he feels their contracts will, in turn, see them miss a massive chunk of domestic matches to come over the next season.
"My job as the coach is to not only to help Canterbury win cricket but also to produce Black Caps for the New Zealand cricket team. Yes you want to win games but you also want to produce international players. Reality is if you produce players they probably won’t spend time playing for provinces, which will make it difficult."
"So the challenge now with Mitchell stepping up to the Black Caps level is someone will need to fill his shoes. We’ve got some young players who have played NZ-A cricket and hopefully in a few years they can make the Black Caps level as well."
One among the players who impressed Fulton this season the most was wicket-keeper batsman Cam Fletcher, who notched up 473 runs at an average of 78.83, with two centuries and two fifties to his name.
Continuing on from his previous point on players settling into the mould of international cricket, Fulton feels BJ Watling's retirement at the end of the World Test Championship final against India could open up opportunities for Fletcher.
"Cam Fletcher had a really good season. He played NZ A earlier on in the season v Pakistan. He’s a really talented player, and has been on the scene for a little while now. With Watling retiring after the WTC final, Blundell will transition into the middle order. But Fletcher has moved up the pecking order with that retirement so if he can build on the last season and have a good List A season this year, he can secure a spot as a back-up in the Test format."
So it's safe to say that Fulton's shift from Black Caps duty to guiding the domestic stars at Canterbury has certainly worked like a charm. For a side that has been gunning for the Plunket Shield and Ford Trophy since their previous win in the 2016/17 season, Fulton's experience of being a part of the championship-winning side has helped in bringing the trophies home.
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And if the past season is anything to go by, the trophy cabinet at the Canterbury cricket headquarters might need to be expanded a fair bit to fit the upcoming laurels in the coming years.