Queensland aim for hat-trick
It's the tournament that has had more names than Sean Combs and more format changes than a struggling TV show. The ACT Comets came and went, as did the ill-conceived split-innings concept. But now the newly-retitled Matador BBQs One-Day Cup might just be finding its niche as a season-opening three-week campaign that mirrors international tournaments.
It begins in Brisbane on Saturday and Queensland will enter the competition hoping to make it a hat-trick of wins after taking out the past two Ryobi Cups. Remarkably, they will do so without having lost a single player to the national side. Ben Cutting and Usman Khawaja are the only Queensland players to have had chances over the past two years, but remain on the fringes.
There is not a Bull in the UAE with Australia's one-day international squad that will play Pakistan this month. More than anything, that reflects the evenness of their contributions. In their successful campaign last summer, they had none of the top five wicket takers, and one of the top 10 run scorers. The injured Chris Lynn and Ryan Harris will miss the tournament, but most of the Queensland squad remains intact.
"We've been like that for a few years now. That's probably what could have cost us for a few years at the Australian selection table as well. We don't have those guys peeling off big seasons," Queensland captain James Hopes told ESPNcricinfo. "Last year was probably the first time we got there ... Usman Khawaja was the second leading run scorer in this tournament.
"And we share our bowling a fair but up here, we all end up taking a pretty similar amount of wickets. I suppose that might hurt us at the selection table if we don't have those standouts, but all we can do is keep winning games of cricket and our guys will be prepared for international cricket if that time comes for them."
Australia's international schedule means that some of last summer's leading players, including top run scorer David Warner and wicket taker Sean Abbott, will be missing from all or most of the Matador Cup. But others will use the competition as one last chance to audition for a call-up to Australia's one-day side to play South Africa in November, and potentially a World Cup position.
The condensed nature of the tournament, introduced last year, means players need not switch between formats too often during the summer. But it also means that should a player be injured, he can miss out completely on 50-over cricket for the summer, as is the case with Lynn, who could have on the verge of a national call-up but will sit out of the whole Matador Cup as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
"We have lost our most destructive player missing for the whole tournament," Hopes said. "But that's the way it goes and to be honest, he's actually looking at it the other way. He's taken the positive view, I'm not going to be playing three forms so I know what I can prepare for now, T20 and Shield cricket. It is unfortunate time for him though, because he was slowly pushing his case to be something like a reserve for the World Cup squad.
"I don't mind it [the format]. They're trying to mirror what happens in international cricket, and that's what happens in international cricket. Gone are the days where you play a Test match and then two one-dayers and then another Test match. Some of the states have named a 15-man squad, so you start to see things like that, which isn't necessarily a bad thing."
The entire tournament will be played in Brisbane and Sydney, with each side playing seven preliminary matches before the top three go through to the finals. The first games on Saturday feature Queensland hosting Victoria at the Gabba and New South Wales playing South Australia at Allan Border Field, a match that could be Shaun Tait's first one-day game in nearly four years.
Tait's comeback to the 50-over format will provide one of the most interesting storylines of the Matador Cup, for at his quickest there is nobody currently in Australian cricket who can match him. However, the question is whether he can maintain that over 10 overs after spending the past few years as a Twenty20 specialist.
He will be joined in the South Australia side by batsman Mark Cosgrove, who has returned to Adelaide after spending the past few seasons in Tasmania. In other major moves, Michael Klinger will next week make his first appearance for his new state Western Australia, and notably it will be against his former team South Australia.
Another South Australian who has found a new home is the former Test fast bowler Peter George, who is set to make his debut for Queensland. Although George was never a major one-day force in South Australia, his new captain believes he can play a role in the Matador Cup as well as the Sheffield Shield, which begins on October 31.
"I've been surprised at how quick he's bowling compared to the last few years," Hopes said. "He's got that bit of zip back. And coming from that height, he's going to be a handful, especially at the Gabba.
"We played the Irish [in a practice game] and he bowled into what could best be described as a gale-force breeze and he was getting them through really well. So we've been looking for a bowler who can bowl into the wind, apart from myself, and Pete might be that man."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale