Sitting on the fence
Mending fences is usually the domain of cricket administrators, but in Queensland the state's bowlers have built them in the pre-season's most novel and constructive exercise. As Australia's 25 contracted players start their secretive bush boot camp today, Michael Kasprowicz, Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson will be more prepared than their team-mates for the great outdoors program commissioned by the coach John Buchanan.
The trio was part of the Queensland Bulls' 12-man unit that returned to their mascot roots by spending a couple of days on the farm of Carl Rackemann, the folkish 12-Test fast man, in the South Burnett region to talk teamwork and develop the state's verbal bowling history. While securing a link between the experienced and junior members of the squad was an essential part of the adventure, the most visible evidence of the stay was a new fence for Rackemann's property in Wondai, which is about 230km north-west of Brisbane.
A century-old rotting structure was ripped up and replaced with a gleaming new model in a morning, with the players joining forces to hammer in the star pickets and strain the wire. "It's the straightest fence in the South Burnett," Kasprowicz, the squad veteran while Andy Bichel is with Essex, says proudly. "Carl said it saved him a good week's worth of work, so it was great to help him out."
The group joked of the similarities to The Simple Life - the reality television show where Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie swap their social sphere for the country - and the bunch of mostly city boys were surprised by the difficulty of the task. "I'm not used to hard work like that," Shane Watson, the Australia allrounder, says. Turning part of Rackemann's house into dorm-style accommodation, the bowlers were responsible for cooking meals and orchestrating discussions around the dining table.
"Carl chimed in occasionally," Johnson says. "He's a good person to get information from." Johnson joined the Queensland squad as a teenager recommended by Dennis Lillee and was quickly welcomed, but in the 1980s the reception was less warm. Incumbents were protective of their places and new members were told to change outside the old Gabba dressing rooms. Kasprowicz, Bichel and Buchanan were important figures in the change from a disrupted team to one that sealed its first Sheffield Shield triumph in 1994-95 and went on to become one of the dominant outfits of the next decade.
"These days the bowlers exchange their thoughts and methods," Johnson says. "I've always looked up to guys like Kasper, Bich, Joe Dawes and Ashley Noffke, and now that I'm in between the senior and junior age bracket I hope I can help the young guys." Johnson's emergence as an international bowler signals him as the next long-term torchbearer for a high-quality squad that faces regular internal selection battles.
The relationship between good mates who are always fighting for places led to Julie McDonald, the 800m freestyle bronze medallist from the 1988 Olympics, speaking to the group. What's swimming got to do with bowling? "Well, you're training every day with your competitors for a couple of spots at state and national level," Kasprowicz says. "Julie talked about how you came together when you're all pushing to make the Olympics. It's similar with bowlers in cricket."
At 34, Kasprowicz has been involved with Queensland for half of his life and takes his mentoring and pastoral roles seriously. "The fence-building was a peripheral thing," he says. "We talked about confidence, expectation, rhythm, fostering teamwork and establishing information sharing between the group. It was good fun."
There will still be time for swapping tips at the back of the nets and warm-up matches before the season starts, but the Queensland bowlers will remember their days as farm hands fondly. In the other states more traditional lead-up events are being tried with Western Australia touring India next month and South Australia planning games against Tasmania, who have a camp at a golf resort in the north-east of the state. And at the national level there are Buchanan's rumoured left-field army operations. Whether the top-paddock experiences help win trophies is impossible to calculate, but in Queensland's case the fast men at least understand what it's like to be a Bull.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo