THIRD-placed Woodford is within 37 runs of victory against reigning premier Merrivale and potentially a semi-final berth after a dramatic opening day of final round matches on Saturday.
But Woodford is down to its last remaining specialist batsmen — Jake McKinnon (28 not out) and Jayvan Houston — as it faces a nervous week ahead of Saturday’s climax at Jack Keane Oval, Koroit.
At the end of a stunning day’s play in which 15 wickets fell for 160 runs, rival skippers, Merrivale’s Michael Walsh and Woodford’s John Houston, were not prepared to claim the front-running as the battle for the top two in the Hopkins conference tightened.
After being sent into bat, Merrivale struggled to 98 with only Simon Fleming (28) and Justin Lynch (22) making double figures as Eels’ pacemen Connor Richardson (4-13) and Tyler Fowler (4-16) did the damage.
But then in pursuit of the total, Merrivale import Zashan Arshad took 2-17 off 18 overs, including 17 unchanged, as Woodford limped to 5-62 at stumps. McKinnon is unbeaten on 28.
Woodford skipper John Houston said the must-win match was evenly poised.
His side sits level with second-placed Allansford on points but narrowly behind on percentage. With Allansford 2-25 chasing Russells Creek’s 209, Houston said the Eels had to focus on their own chase.
“It would be nice to be closer and have a few more wickets in the shed,” Houston said.
“We really need one good partnership and it will be enough. If one can make 25 to 30 I would think we would get a good partnership.”
Houston said his son Jayvan (two not out) was coming off a century in division two and next man in Hank Schlaghecke had been a valuable contributor with the bat in their previous match.
Houston said his bowlers deserved praise.
“You couldn’t ask for anything more.
“Connor is a tall kid who just puts it on a spot. He’s trained harder than he ever has and he is starting to get the rewards.” Fowler, restricted to only six overs because he is 16, was impressive, he said.
Houston said the pitch hadn’t offered a lot to the bowlers throughout the day with both sides’ bowlers hitting a good line and length.
“I think the bowlers bowled well and the batters didn’t bat as well.”
Merrivale skipper Michael Walsh said the Tigers should have been in a stronger position, having dropped chances offered by McKinnon.
“We have to get McKinnon early,” he said, even though the Tigers are assured of finishing on top of the conference and a semi-final berth.
“We dropped him two or three times. One was a real hard chance and one should have been taken. If you get him out, all of a sudden you have two young lads in and the pressure is on.”
Walsh said his side was flat for the second consecutive match.
He said his side had taken responsibility for its below-par effort with the bat.
“If you went through our wickets, a lot were to bad shots. Instead of just trying to bat yourself in, the scoreboard pressure took over.”
In the other Hopkins conference match, a 128-run stand for the fourth wicket between Nathan Murphy (85) and Leigh Pollard (64) helped Brierly Christ Church to a good position against East Warrnambool-YCW.
The Bulls finished with 227, ensuring the Broncos have a big chase next Saturday.