Victoria favourites as White returns for final
Anyone silly enough to dismiss Australia's domestic one-day cup as insignificant needs only to read Jimmy Maher's comments to realise how seriously the competition is taken. Maher was angered by Cricket Australia's decision to prevent Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson and Brad Hodge from playing in Sunday's final at the MCG as a World Cup precaution for the injury-hit squad.
The loss of three big names might make a few spectators reconsider, but it will do nothing to quell the desperation of Victoria and Queensland to break their seven- and eight-year limited-overs droughts. The Bushrangers earned the home-ground advantage with a last-round victory against Tasmania and enter the final as favourites after a five-game winning streak.
They might have gone in as the underdogs if the Bulls had all their stars, but the absence of Watson, Johnson, Matthew Hayden (broken toe) and Andrew Symonds (arm) will hurt Queensland. Each team has regained one big name with Cameron White returning to captain Victoria and James Hopes coming back from a thigh strain.
Andy Bichel and Jimmy Maher are the only two Queenslanders playing on Sunday who celebrated the Bulls' last triumph in 1997-98. Bichel believes the side will be boosted by the inclusion of Hopes, who is the competition's leading wicket-taker with 19 dismissals at 19.78 and is one of only two Queensland century-makers in 2006-07.
"James Hopes, Jimmy Maher and Clinton Perren have all come into some recent form," Bichel said. "They can set the platform for the rest of the team and then there are some young guys who have got plenty of ability down the order. It's the strength of the batting that wins you a big game."
Bichel knows plenty about high-pressure encounters, having appeared in three of the four limited-overs finals Queensland have lost since their last win. "We've played a little bit inconsistently in our one-day cricket over the last few years," he said. "That was part of our development. One of those years we played most of the year with Symonds and Hopes, but circumstances meant they were unavailable for the final and I really felt for the young guys coming in."
Bichel's own role has changed this year and he has often come on as first-change after Ashley Noffke has shared the new-ball with Johnson or Scott Brant. Bichel has done well but his success has been limited compared to his excellent Pura Cup form. "It takes on a new scope," he said. "You don't have guys attacking against you as much. It's been a testing role at times."
One man keen to test Bichel's resolve is Jon Moss, who will open the batting for Victoria with Michael Klinger. Moss said simply reaching the final was pleasing after the Bushrangers' disappointing limited-overs finishes in recent seasons. "It's massive for us," he said. "The last three years we've come third and we've just missed out on the final by a point or two points."
Victoria were struggling earlier in the season when they had two wins and three losses and all eight of their contracted fast bowlers were out injured. But what could have been a disaster for the Bushrangers turned into a positive when two new faces, Clinton McKay and Darren Pattinson, stepped in and took the new ball with impressive results.
Now Victoria have almost a full complement to choose from, with their front-line attack of Shane Harwood, Mick Lewis and Gerard Denton all lining up for a place in the final. Moss said Victoria's evenness was their biggest weapon. "All of us in the team know our role," he said. "Whether that be Michael Klinger and I getting us off to a good start at the top of the order, Andrew McDonald and myself bowling stump to stump through the middle overs, and the fast bowlers have been great. Harwood's been outstanding all year, averaging 13 with the ball, which is phenomenal in one-day cricket."
Moss said playing at the MCG would be a big advantage for the Bushrangers. Their one loss at Melbourne this summer was to Queensland but it was a narrow miss and they were lacking Harwood, Denton and Lewis.
Without Hodge, much will depend on White and his deputy, David Hussey, whose form since Christmas has been outstanding and included a 103-ball 116 in the last match. The development of Adam Crosthwaite as an innovative late-order contributor, combined with consistent form from their top-order and a fully-fit attack, gives Victoria a terrific chance to snare the domestic one-day trophy for the first time since 1998-99.
Victoria squad Michael Klinger, Jon Moss, Cameron White (capt), David Hussey, Rob Quiney, Aiden Blizzard, Andrew McDonald, Adam Crosthwaite (wk), Grant Lindsay, Shane Harwood, Gerard Denton, Mick Lewis, Darren Pattinson.
Queensland squad Jimmy Maher (capt), James Hopes, Clinton Perren, Craig Philipson, Aaron Nye, Nathan Reardon, Chris Simpson, Michael Buchanan, Chris Hartley (wk), Andy Bichel, Ashley Noffke, Scott Brant.
Brydon Coverdale is an editorial assistant of Cricinfo