March 21, 2002

Bulls, Tigers ready for the rematch

It almost had to happen, really.

It is three months since Tasmania last played Queensland in a Pura Cup match in Brisbane. It is three months since the Tigers came across one of the most capricious and controversial 'Gabba pitches in memory. It is three months since they recorded - in the one game, no less - their two lowest totals in domestic first-class competition. It is three months since they were beaten in the fastest time ever taken to complete a match of its kind in Australia, and it is three months since they found themselves at one of the lower ebbs in the state's cricketing history.

Queensland's ten wicket victory back then went a long way toward sealing its spot in the Final, and it appeared to have gone just as far in ending Tasmania's summer.

But, in the three months since, nothing has proved more fateful than that experience.

That it is Queensland and Tasmania that have ultimately emerged as this Australian first-class season's two best-performing teams, and that the concluding contest of the summer should be staged between them in Brisbane, combines wicked irony with delicious anticipation.

It is crunch time in the Australian domestic summer and, whatever course the 2001-02 Pura Cup Final follows, it is impossible for it not to create a delightful new slice of history.

Thirteen years have passed since a state last won this competition three times in a row, and the feat has never been achieved by Queensland. With triumphs over Victoria in each of the last two years still fresh in the memory, opportunities to join the ranks of some of the most exalted Australian domestic teams do not come much better than this.

For Tasmania, the possibilities are no less exciting. Though the Tigers represent the smallest state in the country, and confront a routine lack of respect from mainlanders every year, they have refused to acquiesce with expectation this season. Moreover, in collecting 26 of a maximum 30 points from their last five outings - the four they surrendered were largely attributable to appalling weather in Melbourne - they have established themselves as the form team of the competition.

And, should they reverse that outcome from their Brisbane duel earlier in the summer, it would be among the most amazing results in Tasmanian sporting history. As parties go, the victory celebrations would have few forerunners within their state.

The visitors' task seems simple enough in itself. They merely need to continue riding the wave that has carried them to a stage of the competition that their state has only known twice in its past.

Given how well their bowlers are combining, and how effortlessly they seem to be collecting 20 wickets in their matches these days, it does not seem too daunting a requirement. Veteran David Saker and journeyman Shane Jurgensen have been outstanding, aligning movement both ways with metronomic line. Gerard Denton offers another dimension with his extreme pace, filling the void that was left when Shane Watson was called away to international duty in February. And, though injury threatens his participation this week, the fact that Damien Wright's immaculate line and length is now being paired with sizeable lower order contributions with the bat and accomplished catching in the gully means that his role in Tasmania's revival has also been central.

Strong performances from the top and middle order - traditionally seen as the key to Tasmania's game - have also been flowing readily after being uncharacteristically absent prior to Christmas.

Opening batsman and captain Jamie Cox looks to be back to his best with scores of 174 and 72 in his two most recent matches; former Western Australian Michael Dighton has settled in seamlessly both to his new surroundings and his role at number three; Daniel Marsh provides a cool head and an efficient run scoring presence; and Michael Di Venuto is as eager for anyone for meaningful runs at the end of a troubled season and on the back of two previous experiences in first-class deciders.

The spirit and determination embedded in the batting of Scott Mason at the top of the order - not to mention his role as a cheerleader in the field - have also been intangible assets.

As have the nerve and skill of wicketkeeper-batsman Sean Clingeleffer at number seven.

Yet the Tigers' assignment over the next five days is likely to be as challenging as any they have encountered.

Though five key players are missing (Matthew Hayden, Andy Bichel, Jimmy Maher and Nathan Hauritz to international commitments, and Adam Dale to long-term injury), there remains no state team as professional as Queensland.

From Stuart Law's on-field leadership right through to the off-field administration, few stones are left unturned in Brisbane in the search for optimum results.

It is not by way of chance or accident that the Bulls will be appearing in their seventh first-class final in the last decade, nor that they are shooting for a remarkable fifth title in only eight years.

This time around, the top six in their batting order has a slightly unstable look to it, with three players of considerable experience aligned with another trio with precious little. Yet, in Martin Love, they have the consummate big occasion player. Rival captain Cox rates him alongside South Australia's Darren Lehmann as one of the two most dangerous batsmen in the country and it's difficult to disagree.

Injury and form have scuttled the seasons of Law and of Andrew Symonds to an extent but both have sound records against Tasmania. Instructively, Law also has an outstanding record in finals matches, albeit that Victorians might mutter something about the fact that his luck at this time of year may be due to run out.

Bichel and Dale may be unavailable but there's still a lot to like in the Queenslanders' pace attack as well.

It has been three seasons since Michael Kasprowicz was permitted the opportunity to play in such a match, and a further two since he last received first-hand experience of the joy of a title victory. A fine fast bowler even when little is at stake, he looms as one of the key players in this contest.

Ashley Noffke needs little introduction at this time of the season either, having gained man of the match honours in a devastating performance in the corresponding game 12 months ago. Joe Dawes is always lionhearted, rarely strays from a line and length, and was the competition's leading wicket-taker last summer. And, though a surprise inclusion when called up to the side late in the season, young left armer Scott Brant has proved as adept at conquering batsmen as anyone.

For all the talk in recent days about the Bulls being understrength in this match, it also shouldn't be forgotten that Tasmania has been deprived the services of Watson, Ricky Ponting and, potentially, Wright.

Conditioned by the knowledge that the sides' two previous meetings have not even entered a third day, and that both captains have talked up the attacking qualities of their respective line-ups in the hours leading into the match, an engrossing battle can be confidently expected.

The closing game of the 100th full season of this competition is approaching and there have been few climaxes more keenly awaited.