Mark Sorell outlines his plan June 5, 2007

Untangling the Redbacks' web

Mark Sorell spent the last two years in charge of the Australia women's team © Getty Images

Mark who? That was the response from outside Adelaide when South Australia appointed their new coach last month. The man in question was Mark Sorell, and if replacing John Buchanan was considered the plum job in world coaching this year, Sorell surely has one of the least enviable.

His mission is to rebuild the Redbacks into a Pura Cup force. On the downside, the team finished last in 2006-07, with one win. Their batsmen made only three centuries between them for the whole year. They lost to Western Australia in two days. On the upside, well, things can only get better.

Sorell comes to South Australia from a winning culture. For two years from 2005, he coached the Australia women's team and in that time they won 17 of their 21 ODIs. But his challenge there was different; they were already strong and had won 16 of their last 20 ODIs before he took over. He does, however, intend to use the same principle with the Redbacks that he employed in his last job: get the basics right.

Sorell has now spent two weeks at the helm of South Australia and has begun by making no outlandish promises and conceding there is no "quick-fix". He believes there are many contenders to replace Darren Lehmann as captain, and has thrown the position up for grabs for whoever impresses most in the off-season. It will be a busy winter for Sorell, who has already identified a few problem areas.

The team's batting is the major worry. Lehmann, Mark Cosgrove and Shane Deitz were the only first-class century-makers in 2006-07. In their 20 Pura Cup innings, the Redbacks did not pass 400 once, and five times they were dismissed for less than 150. Matthew Elliott, Cameron Borgas, Daniel Harris and Callum Ferguson all averaged less than 27. "There appeared to be times that the guys made some bad decisions," Sorell told Cricinfo. "No coach can make the decisions for them. I'm not saying there's any quick-fix for that but we're certainly going to work on that in the off-season."

Although South Australia's bowling looks more promising, they have been let down too often by dropped catches and misfields. "One of the areas we've really got to work on is improving our fielding," Sorell said. "We were definitely down last year and if we can support our bowlers better with our fielding we should get better results."

If we keep working hard and do what we need to do to get better, I'm sure we'll compete well. Hopefully as we go down the track we'll start winning more games than we lose.

Sorell also has the challenge of keeping his troops in line when on the road. Last season there were persistent reports of partying behaviour when the squad was interstate and several players and officials aired their dirty laundry in the media. In December, The Advertiser reported that Rod Marsh, the Redbacks' high-performance director, was unhappy with the players' off-field conduct and leadership. Marsh said Sorell, 41, a former grade cricketer in Adelaide who never quite broke into the state side, would be an ideal fit for the young squad.

Sorell would not comment on what happened in 2006-07 but he will make sure all the players know what is expected of them from now on. "As a group we'll talk a lot about how we go about things, how we conduct ourselves," he said. "There'll be an ongoing program that will be done through our leadership group."

While it might have been tempting to have a clean-out of players after such a disappointing season, Sorell believes he can extract the best from the current batch. Greg Blewett, who retired, and Trent Kelly, who moved to Perth, were the only players from last year's squad not re-signed for 2007-08. Six of next year's group have represented Australia in Tests or ODIs: Lehmann, Cosgrove, Elliott, Jason Gillespie, Shaun Tait and Dan Cullen.

Gillespie, Tait, Cullen and Cullen Bailey all have current Cricket Australia contracts and might therefore be missing at times next season. Sorell believes Paul Rofe can easily step back in to shoulder some of the fast-bowling load if Tait receives higher honours. "I hope in my heart of hearts Shaun plays a hell of a lot of cricket for Australia," he said. "We've got other players who can perform at the first-class level."

The Redbacks might have to do without Shaun Tait on a regular basis © Getty Images

A call-up for Bailey or Cullen would be a blessing, as the state selectors had trouble fitting them both in last year. "I suppose it depends on the makeup of our bowling around our pace attack," Sorell said. "The advantage is they are obviously two different spinners so at different times there's certainly a role they both could play."

To be fair, the bowling was not the only bright spot in South Australia's dull summer. Jason Borgas, who came into the side in January to boost the struggling and injury-troubled top order, impressed with his determination and the value he put on his wicket. He made four half-centuries from five Pura Cup games, averaging 40.8 and earning himself a contract for 2007-08. "Jason had really good grade form and didn't let anyone down when he got the chance," Sorell said. "He's got a really solid game and we hope our boys can bat around people like that."

Another standout was Deitz, who began the summer as a batsman but soon stole Graham Manou's wicketkeeping duties as well. Deitz's 665 first-class runs came at 41.56, making him arguably the side's most consistent contributor. Manou was retained in the limited-overs format and Sorell expects the shared responsibilities to continue.

But to take significant steps the Redbacks need more than consistency, they need occasional bursts of brilliance from individual players. They have not won the Pura Cup since 1995-96 and after their horrendous 2006-07, the new coach has set realistic goals. "We're really just trying to do everything right," he said. "If we keep working hard and do what we need to do to get better, I'm sure we'll compete well. Hopefully as we go down the track we'll start winning more games than we lose."

That seems a sensible aim for every state coach, but few are facing the uphill battle that awaits Sorell.

Brydon Coverdale is an editorial assistant on Cricinfo