Queensland understand dangers of being No. 1
Jimmy Maher's team enters the Pura Cup final against Victoria on Friday as the competition's dominant team, but the Bulls know the familiar position isn't a guarantee to lift the huge gold trophy. Queensland, the most consistent side over the past decade, have earned a spot in their eighth consecutive decider and their seventh at home as the bonus for topping the table. However, they have not won the title since the 235-run success over Tasmania in 2001-02.
The memories of last year's one-wicket loss to New South Wales are still fresh and Maher and Andy Bichel, who collected the Pura Cup Player of the Year award on Wednesday, will be desperate to wipe away the tears created by Stuart MacGill's swiped boundary under the Gabba lights. Rain and greasy conditions ensured the 2004-05 final was wrapped up in three days and Queensland's wet autumn will again have an influence with lead-up showers predicted to be followed by more damp weather.
As hosts, Queensland need only a draw to seal the trophy but modern stalemates have been rare; the last one was between these sides in 1999-2000 when Stuart Law collected a controversial double of 129 and 84. The game was partly responsible for the air in subsequent Queensland and Victoria matches being as blue as the Bushrangers' caps, but Law and Darren Berry have since retired and the tension has eased.
The Bulls' most experienced player is now Martin Love, who will walk out for a national-record 10th final after making his debut in the 1992-93 disaster against New South Wales in the days when "Queensland" and "Sheffield Shield" were perennially linked with the word "lose". This defeat was made worse by the newspaper headline "Queensland - perfect one day, out for 75 the next" as they were beaten by a team including pre-Test versions of Slater, Gilchrist and McGrath. Since then Love has been part of four victories and has scored centuries in three finals, including 116 in last season's low-scoring thriller.
Despite a sleepy start to the summer that put him on the endangered-species list, Love returned to his easy accumulation methods in the second half of the ten preliminary rounds and collected 659 runs at 38.76. Maher was ninth on the run-scorer's list with 683 and the state's lack of regular productivity was a problem usually overcome by Bichel and Michael Kasprowicz, who finished with 45 and 44 wickets respectively.
Gerard Denton, Victoria's leading man with 33 victims, was ruled out of the match following appendicitis surgery on Tuesday night and Shane Harwood (30) and Allan Wise (27) are the most successful fast men in the visitors' squad. However, the battle between Mick Lewis, the Australia one-day bowler who gave up 0 for 113 in his last major match, and the combination of Bichel and Mitchell Johnson will have a major say on the outcome.
The game contains many quality performers with the international allrounders Shane Watson and James Hopes taking aim against Cameron White, the Victoria captain, batsman and legspinner. Jason Arnberger and Nick Jewell have both had 600-plus seasons and Brad Hodge, who was a Test batsman only two months ago, has his last opportunity to push for a spot on next month's Bangladesh tour squad.
Victoria lost both four-day games to Queensland during the summer, the first by 225 runs at the Gabba and the second, three weeks ago at St Kilda, by 106 runs. The most recent victory sealed the Bulls top spot and they ended the group phase on 34 points, four ahead of Victoria, who secured their place by beating Western Australia as their final opponents were overpowered by Tasmania.
One area where the Bushrangers have a distinct advantage is in their history of 26 Sheffield Shield-Pura Cup titles to Queensland's five. Victoria's last triumph in 2003-04 is as memorable for Bulls supporters as the most recent miss against New South Wales. Playing at the MCG, Victoria abused their hosting rights by batting into the third day, reaching 710 in 834 minutes and 212 overs. The eventual margin of 321 came after they avoided enforcing the follow-on and created a debate about the relevance of the final concept.
It was a match that had the desired effect of demoralising Queensland and the threat of a batting repeat this week is impossible with the Gabba pitch showing its usual green tinges and the weather providing more help for bowlers. The Bulls are at home in the conditions but after waiting 69 years for their first title they understand the dangers of end-of-season hurdles.
Victoria squad Jason Arnberger, Lloyd Mash, Brad Hodge, Nick Jewell, David Hussey, Cameron White (capt), Jon Moss, Nathan Pilon (wk), Adam Crosthwaite (wk), Dirk Nannes, Mick Lewis, Shane Harwood, Allan Wise.
Queensland squad Jimmy Maher (capt), Lachlan Stevens, Martin Love, Clinton Perren, Shane Watson, James Hopes, Brendan Nash, Chris Hartley (wk), Andy Bichel, Ashley Noffke, Daniel Doran, Mitchell Johnson.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo