In 2014, Cricket Victoria reversed its emphasis. From time immemorial, it had set out to win Sheffield Shields, believing the bi-product would be a stream of n players. Three years ago, it decided that its No.1 KPI would be n caps, and the Shield could look after itself. One consequence, says CA cricket manager Shaun Graf, is that coaches and selectors became more adventurous, and also looked more favourably on youth.
Well, what do you know? Three years later, there are four Victorians in the Test squad now returning from India, and by next summer there should be a fifth, quickie James Pattinson, and even a sixth, left-arm spinner Jon Holland. And along the way, the Vics have won the Shield three times in a row for the first time in their storied history, formalising the third on a balmy afternoon in Alice Springs on Thursday.
Incidentally, this hat-trick has been won under three different coaches, which shows that the Shield, though an honest competition in itself, is also a stepping stone. Also incidentally, Victoria were the home team in two of the three finals, but they were played variously in Hobart, Glenelg and Alice Springs, which shows how far the cricket season has been shunted aside by footy.
This year’s final was characteristically anti-climactic. Victoria won the toss and took up occupation for 289 overs over two innings, more than any previous finalist except one. It left no time or at length inclination for South to make a match of it. Finals tend either to be gripping – last year’s was – or studies in inertia. The top team deserves an advantage, but for the draw to be a first resort rather than last is counter-ethical to the way modern cricket is played.
But Victoria could only work within the system as specified. Besides, each of the three wins was about the sum of their season, not one game. Each followed a remarkably similar course: a rampant pre-Christmas period, collapse after the long Big Bash League hiatus, then a gathering up at the end, just in time.
This season’s performance has been especially meritorious. National selection – hallelujah! – took a toll. So did injury. Veterans Peter Siddle and John Hastings were sidelined, also young, smoking guns Will Pucovski and Sam Harper. The BBL break was a hump, distracting players beforehand, dividing them for the duration and leaving minor personal strains to deal with afterwards; such is the lot of a two-team state. This season, there was also the mid-stream change of brand of ball to assimilate.
Successively Victoria lost by an innings to NSW on the MCG, then in two days to WA in Perth. But they had the points on the board, the runs, too. Crucially, rehabbed Pattinson turned down enquiries from the national selectors about replacing the fallen Mitchell Starc in India, preferring to make haste slowly, and with his whistling outswingers bowled Victoria into the final, and it was all over bar the shouting, an unlikely sound at a Shield game anyway.
Graf, a 40-year servant of Victorian cricket in various roles, up to and including 12th man once for , identifies several forces agreeably at work in Victoria’s hegemony. One is a classic blend: at one end the vast experience of Cameron White, Rob Quiney and Dan Christian, at the other the youthful insouciance of Seb Gotch and Travis Dean. Pattinson has been vital, as batsman as well as bowler, allowing Christian to play at No. 6 and Gotch at No. 7 and eliciting runs from all three (not to mention a bolter’s century from tailender Chris Tremain).
The youth system is producing, and players from elsewhere are knocking on what they see as an attractive door. Opener Marcus Harris came to Victoria, not Victoria to him, and his century on day one of the final effectively settled it. But Graf is not holier-than-thou. Where Victoria sees a need and a recruit, it goes for him: hence the much-travelled Christian.
Oddly enough, Alice Springs is a vice turned virtue. Vagrancy in Melbourne has forced the Vics to play out of there, with generous backing from the NT government, but Graf said it has bound the team into one. Living together, and with neither the distractions nor the obligations of home to interfere, they have become tight. Plainly, it suits the Bushrangers to be outlaws.
But if they get to another final next season, it will be at the expansively redeveloped Junction Oval, with its spanking new facilities, widened arena and 44 practice pitches, 12 on the ground and 32 off it. It will be home – but will it?
Three in a row is hard, four near to impossible: ask Hawthorn or the Brisbane Lions. Time does not stand still, no matter what impression you might have formed in Alice Springs. Only Quiney, Christian and Fawad Ahmed have played in all three wins. Next season, Matt Wade moves back to Tasmania, instantly taking Victoria down a peg on their made-for- metric. With any luck, and justice, Pattinson at least will be playing for , at once vindicating Victoria and filleting them. It is ever thus in state cricket.
NSW’s nine-in-a-row record is out of sight and by policy out of mind. Still, when you stop mentioning the war, sometimes it wins itself.