Sandhurst celebrate 39 years after their last triumph. Photo: ANDREW PERRYMAN

THE consummate captain’s performance from Craig Howard has sealed a memorable return to the top of the Bendigo District Cricket Association for Sandhurst.

Thirty-nine years after their last grand final triumph, Howard’s unbeaten 60 spanning three hours and 166 balls sealed the Dragons’ thrilling victory over Strathdale Maristians.

With weather looming large across the weekend, play began on day one at the QEO with the Suns winning the toss and electing to bat.

Taylor Beard toiled typically hard for the Dragons, bowling 13 overs unchanged to start proceedings including the opening two breakthroughs.

It was at that point that Howard turned to young spinners Todd Murphy and Taylor-Walsh Medal winner Sam Sperling, with devastating effect.

The pair operated in tandem for 26 overs, claiming four wickets including the prized scalps of Ben DeAraugo (1) and Cam Taylor (8) to break the game wide open.

By the time Howard brought himself on to spell Sperling, the score was 6/109 and Sandhurst was well on top.

Sperling came back on and removed the hard-hitting Sam Johnston (34) with the score on 148 before Will Keck had fellow Teenager Daniel Clohsey removed a handful of overs later for a gutsy 47.

Dylan Baillie followed him back to the dressing rooms soon after and Sandhurst closed in on the last wicket with the score at 9/160.

As has become the norm with Strathdale, a last-wicket stand between Jake DeAraugo (30) and Ryan Haythorpe (11) of 36 pushed the score to the brink of 200.

But after an 83-ball stand it was Murphy who had the last say in the battle, claiming the wicket of Haythorpe to dismiss the Suns for 196.

That target, more than chaseable with the Dragons’ late order hitting set openers Nayana Palamandadige and teenager Darby Semmens a simple task – occupation.

Where Strathdale had failed to have a batsman stay at the crease for more than 100 balls, it was that very trait that would prove key to Sandhurst’s chances.

The first boundary came via leg byes in the ninth over, before only balls later Palamandadige capitalised on a loose delivery to take Johnston to the rope. All was going well until master Strathdale spinner Cam Taylor struck in the 16th over, claiming the vital scalp of Palamandadige for 16.

Sam de Silva joined Semmens and lasted less than 10 overs before teenaged tweaker Vlaeminck had him caught for three, and Murphy followed him back to the sheds with the very next ball to give Strathdale a sniff at 3/48.

At number five Howard strode out to the crease, determined to stay with Semmens and guide his side to victory.

Semmens lasted another 11 overs before Johnston snared his wicket, but the opener made 25 and saw off 104 deliveries in a resolute display belying his years.

Ash Gray then strode to the crease at 4/65, the boom-or-bust prospect for the Dragons coming out at the game’s most pivotal moment.

Howard and Gray added 79 before Gray was caught and bowled by Jack Neylon in the 61st over having made 57 from only 74 balls.

Beard came out and was again cast as the aggressor alongside Howard, lasting just seven overs but striking a pair of boundaries.

That brought Shane Robinson to the crease with 31 runs required, an experienced head for the situation.

The new partnership the score ticking over, until two balls into the 83rd over when Robinson worked the ball into the on-side for two to give the Sandhurst fans some long-awaited joy.

There could be more to come, with the club’s Second XI side to finish its grand final against Bendigo United across the reserve days this weekend due to the weather affecting the match.

Eaglehawk won the Third XI grand final at Weeroona Oval, while the Suns did have some grand final glory with their under-18 side defeating Strathfieldsaye.

– Joel Peterson