Bird and Tigers the perfect fit
This time last year, Jackson Bird was no more than a club cricketer with Manly-Warringah in Sydney's grade competition, albeit a very fine one. New South Wales had a surfeit of young fast bowlers and Bird knew his chances of playing state cricket were slim with Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Trent Copeland, Josh Hazlewood and others ahead of him. Now he is preparing for a Sheffield Shield final with Tasmania as the leading wicket taker and player of the tournament.
He wasn't even picked for his first-class debut until the fourth round of the Shield campaign. In seven matches he has taken 48 wickets at 15.75. He took a hat-trick in his last game. There have been five five-wicket hauls and two matches in which he has claimed ten victims. To put that in perspective, no other Shield bowler has taken ten wickets in a match this summer. Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris are still waiting for their first ten-wicket first-class game.
On Wednesday he was named the Sheffield Shield Player of the Year. On Friday he will walk on to the Gabba, a venue at which he has never played, as one of the keys to Tasmania's chances of taking back-to-back Shield titles. It has all happened so quickly that Bird, 25, is still trying to take it all in.
"When New South Wales started picking blokes ahead of me who were younger than me I thought I might have missed my opportunity," Bird told ESPNcricinfo. "I'm not bitter towards Cricket New South Wales at all - the guys they picked in front of me are guys who have done really well and played for Australia, guys like Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins and Trent Copeland. It was just bad timing for me.
"It's been pretty unbelievable this year. I wouldn't have thought at the start of the year I would have played seven games let alone take 48 wickets. It's been good for me but we've still got the Shield final coming up this week so hopefully I can get a few wickets in that."
If he doesn't it will be the exception to his norm. Bird's results have surprised everyone, including Ali de Winter, the Tasmania assistant coach who kept an eye on his performances for Manly-Warringah and in Second XI cricket for New South Wales. A position on Tasmania's contract list opened up last year and Bird jumped when offered the spot, and de Winter said his performances this summer had been "way above expectations".
"We had a watch on him for two or three years," de Winter said. "It was just a matter of having an opportunity on our list. That got created because we had an extra couple of guys on national contracts. He was always of interest to us. He bowls with a good seam position, he has a low-maintenance action, attacks the stumps and above all gets wickets. He's a pretty low-maintenance cricketer, which works well in Hobart."
Bird doesn't have the express pace of some of Australia's younger fast bowlers - he usually operates around 135kph - but his consistency and relentless line and length have troubled batsmen this year. He gets just enough swing and seam movement to be dangerous, and can find reverse swing, as he showed by tailing the ball in for an lbw to complete his hat-trick last week.
Bellerive Oval has suited his accurate style and the Gabba, where Queensland have lost only one match in this Shield campaign, should also offer Bird plenty of encouragement. He is at his most comfortable in the longer form of the game, although his results in the Ryobi Cup and for the Melbourne Stars in the BBL were far from disappointing.
"There's no real nerves in four-day cricket," Bird said. "I was a little bit nervous when we were playing the Twenty20 and one-day stuff. I just treat it as another game of cricket. I'm a pretty laid-back sort of person. I'm not really an aggressive sort of guy on the field. I'd prefer just to go about my business and keep to myself on the field. I'm not really the type to go out and sledge or anything like that."
The same could be said of Ben Hilfenhaus, another Tasmania fast bowler who has gone on to greater success in Test cricket. Test cricket is Bird's goal as well, although he knows it is probably a long way off just yet. A more realistic goal is the Australia A tour of England this year. de Winter believes Bird has what it takes to compete at Test level but his challenge will be to back up after his strong first season. As Trent Copeland found out this season, that's not always easy - he took 11 Shield wickets at 54.18 in seven games.
"If you look back over time, blokes like Copeland and Hilfenhaus in their first seasons for their state, when other teams hadn't had a great opportunity to look at them, they probably had their best seasons statistically," de Winter said. "We certainly hope this isn't his best season, we hope he has more in him. He knows that will be the challenge for him. He knows that physically he can get even better than he is at the moment."
Away from the game, Bird is studying a Bachelor of Business, specialising in marketing. His mother runs a clothing store in Sydney and his father works as a grip in the film business, and has worked on major films like The Matrix and Crocodile Dundee. He now lives in Romania, a popular shooting venue for Hollywood films due to lower costs, and keeps an eye on his son's bowling from afar.
"He watches a fair bit of my cricket on the live stream," Bird said. "I speak to him a couple of times a week, which is good."
There's a fair chance he'll be keeping a close watch on the Shield final. If Bird can help bowl Tasmania to the title, it would be his crowning achievement in a majestic summer.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here