March 21, 2008

Domestic chore

Following a season of massive player change in the Australian domestic scene, the Pura Cup final needs to join the revamp


New South Wales have found another star from the Western Suburbs club in Phillip Hughes © Getty Images
 

A strange thing happened after New South Wales thrashed Victoria in the Pura Cup final - nobody in the match retired. It was rare in a season containing more bows than a Broadway encore, but it showed that teams that mix emerging players with experienced ones not on the verge of stepping down were more likely to succeed.

In South Australia Darren Lehmann, Matthew Elliott and Jason Gillespie departed during a disrupted season in which the team finished fifth, while the distinguished careers of Michael Kasprowicz and Jimmy Maher ended with Queensland accepting the wooden spoon. Tasmania lost Michael Di Venuto as they defended the trophy by coming fourth and Western Australia face more rebuilding following the exits of Justin Langer, Mathew Inness, Brad Hogg and Adam Gilchrist.

Young men in the finalists' squads were given a chance without needing a state hero to depart, and nobody showed the benefits more than Phillip Hughes and Peter Siddle, opponents in the final. Hughes, the wildly talented and incredibly focused 19-year-old opener, was promoted at New South Wales and finished the season with 559 first-class runs at 62.11.

Horrified with his edge to Siddle 12 balls into the opening morning of the decider, Hughes returned in the second innings to become the youngest to post a century in a domestic final. Another bottle-blond star from Sydney's Western Suburbs club, where Michael Clarke developed, has arrived.

Siddle has been around the Victoria set-up for a couple of years, but at 23 he is the future of the state's bowling - as long as his regularly reconstructed shoulder can stick together. Nine wickets at the SCG were his reward along with the invaluable experience of seeing how Brett Lee, the best fast bowler of the past six months, operates. Siddle was the victim of a brutal mini-spell of bouncers from Lee. It was bruising, riveting and something Siddle should repeat with the ball on many occasions.

While the decider contained many bright spots, particularly the concluding innings of Simon Katich's summer-long brilliance, it also proved the pinnacle of the season is as flat as the surface usually prepared by the home team. Victoria and New South Wales finished the regular rounds tied on 39 points, with the Blues' superior run-wicket quotient gaining the advantages of a home game and needing only a draw to win the trophy.

New South Wales thumped the Bushrangers by 258 runs, allowing them to move on from the 421-run defeat to Tasmania 12 months earlier. For Victoria it was their second embarrassment in three years, following the innings-and-354-run humiliation to Queensland after the hosts plundered 6 for 900 before declaring.

Throughout the season every team sprints while trying to reach an outright result, but when it comes to the final the home side dawdles unless it runs into brilliant bowling. Siddle's 5 for 66 achieved that when the hosts were dismissed for 281 early on day two, but in the second innings New South Wales registered 563 before declaring eight down after tea on day four.


There was lots to celebrate for New South Wales, but this has been the third Pura Cup season in a row to finish with a horribly one-sided final © Getty Images
 

A team that played so attackingly throughout the regular season, winning six games and remaining undefeated, turned defensive, squeezing all life - and most of the interest - from the contest. Similar attitudes prevail in club finals across the country as the visiting players start more than a few paces behind. The top side is following the rules, and this is not the problem, but the method is not in the Australian way.

Playing the match at home is a large enough benefit without making one team have to gallop while the other trots leisurely. Only twice in the past nine deciders has the visiting squad taken the trophy, leaving the winners to enjoy a virtual five-day lap of honour.

Lee deserves the first-class century he missed by three runs at the SCG for all his batting efforts, but his 176-run partnership with Beau Casson took 56.4 overs and started with his side already more than 400 ahead. In a sport where that sort of fourth-innings is basically impossible, the Blues carried on until the Bushrangers were faced with a target of 629 in less than four sessions.

The argument for letting both teams begin the game by needing to win to take the prize has not been helped by the outright results in the past three one-sided affairs. If any of the contests had finished in draws the push for change would have intensified, but not even Cameron White, the twice-losing Victoria captain, wants any alterations to the format. What an update of the conditions might do is help the season finish with a surge instead of being buried under coverage of footballers who have torn hamstrings in pre-season fixtures.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo