Blues hold aces in high-stakes match
On paper it looks like a done deal. New South Wales should win the 2007-08 Pura Cup and they ought to do it comfortably. The Blues are hosting the final at the SCG, they need only a draw to secure the title, and seven members of their starting line-up have Test experience. Victoria have one man with a baggy green in his cupboard, although it's only been worn five times and has not been dusted off in more than two years.
But the script is not always followed in cricket, as Australia know after their unexpected defeat in the CB Series. The presence of the current and former internationals Brett Lee, Michael Clarke, Stuart Clark, Stuart MacGill, Nathan Bracken, Phil Jaques, Simon Katich and Brad Haddin only increases the expectation on New South Wales, and according to the Victoria batsman David Hussey, that plays into the visitors' hands.
"It's looking very positive for the New South Wales team, full of stars," Hussey said. "But I think it's a good thing. All the pressure is basically on them. The whole of the Victorian squad, if we can prepare well, can sort of glide into Sydney like a shark. We're such a tight-knit group I know we'll all be playing for each other.
"It's as close to a Test match as you can possibly get. Brett Lee, Stuart Clark, Nathan Bracken - they're all Test quality so for myself as a batsman I'm really looking forward to that challenge. We really can't wait to take on their team because it really is going to be like a Test match experience."
It has been almost impossible to split the two sides all season, so much so that a first-innings tie in their previous match secured both their places in the decider with two rounds remaining. The sudden influx of international experience tilts things in the Blues' favour, with Brad Hodge the only Victorian who has played Test cricket.
The availability of the stars is a stroke of scheduling luck for New South Wales. Not since 1991-92 has the state final been blessed with the presence of so many current Australia players, and on that occasion the benefits were shared between New South Wales and Western Australia. Only in 1995-96 could the national representatives of the day appear in the decider but neither of the finalists, South Australia or Western Australia, had any internationals to call on.
To make room for the returning men the Blues have been forced to squeeze out several men who have been integral in helping them get so close to the triumph: Matthew Nicholson, Peter Forrest and probably Grant Lambert and Mark Cameron, who are in the 13-man squad. Bracken has played five Pura Cup games this summer but has been in ODI mode for two months, and he said it was an awkward but inevitable situation.
"It's never nice to walk in and basically take somebody's spot but you've got to realise that a lot of the guys [coming back] were in the same boat," Bracken said. "I know Stuart Clark was in the same position when he started, he'd be out depending on the Australian players.
"We are used to being put in crunch situations where you basically do have to walk into something, sometimes a little bit cold and get ready to play. With Australian commitments you can go overseas and play over there when you haven't done anything for what could be two or three months."
It means a very different looking New South Wales side to the one that lost last year's final to Tasmania - only four men from that team are likely to be used in this decider. One of those players is Katich, the captain, who is the competition's leading scorer with 1328 runs at 94.85 and needs a further 137 to break the all-time record.
"I couldn't have asked for anything better, except for perhaps a better showing from us in the one-dayers," Katich said of his personal success and his team's impressive 2007-08. "If we can win one of the three titles we can walk away pretty content with where we're at."
For Victoria, one out of three is not enough. They already have the Twenty20 prize and lost the FR Cup to Tasmania, and they are desperate to secure the last Pura Cup before the competition changes names - the milk company is ending its sponsorship after this game. "It's a great achievement for the whole of the Victorian Bushrangers squad of reaching three finals but there's no point being in the finals unless you're going to win it," Hussey said. "Last year we played in two finals so we're definitely improving."
The odds might be stacked against Victoria but they have reasons to be optimistic. Hussey is second only to Katich on the run tally, Hodge has had another strong season and Cameron White has found batting form at the right time. Peter Siddle's bowling has improved immensely, Bryce McGain is one of the country's top two spinners and Andrew McDonald's all-round efforts have again been important. Win or lose, the Bushrangers can at least hope that by this time next year they, like their esteemed opponents, will have more than one Test player on their books.
New South Wales squad Phil Jaques, Phillip Hughes, Simon Katich (capt), Michael Clarke, Dominic Thornely, Brad Haddin (wk), Grant Lambert, Beau Casson, Brett Lee, Nathan Bracken, Stuart Clark, Stuart MacGill, Mark Cameron.
Victoria squad Nick Jewell, Rob Quiney, Lloyd Mash, Brad Hodge, David Hussey, Cameron White (capt), Andrew McDonald, Adam Crosthwaite (wk), Shane Harwood, Peter Siddle, Clint McKay, Bryce McGain, Dirk Nannes.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo