A coup and a mistake
The most hopeful and amusing line of the Australian off-season currently belongs to South Australia's coach Mark Sorell. In unveiling Younis Khan, the wonderful Pakistan batsman, as a short-term signing for 2008-09, Sorell said Younis could "possibly return to Adelaide for the finals, if required".
One of the most consistent recent aspects of South Australia is their comedy value and the thought of them being in contention for trophies because they have added a part-time overseas player has many in the country's cricket community giggling. The last time they made a domestic first-class final was in 1995-96 and in the past 14 seasons they have reached the one-day decider twice. In a competition with only six teams it is a special record.
Signs of a revival are almost impossible to spot and they will start next summer in much worse shape in all departments except Graham Manou's capable wicketkeeping. In 2007-08 they were second-last in the Pura Cup, two-and-a-half points ahead of Queensland, who were such an attractive option to Ryan Harris, the Redbacks' No. 1 player, that he joined them.
The move was part of many strange player-related events in South Australia that included the appointment and subsequent mid-season sacking of the captain Nathan Adcock - a bits-and-pieces contributor who actually did well to stay in charge for so long - the loss of Darren Lehmann, Jason Gillespie and Matthew Elliott to retirement, and no solutions in solving the problem of the wildly talented Mark Cosgrove, who was dropped in February.
Off the field South Australia, a state with a population of about 1.5 million, was apparently feeling the repercussions of the global "uncertainty in financial markets" so badly that the South Australian Cricket Association's A$90m Adelaide Oval redevelopment was postponed. The regeneration of the team began with a new coaching unit before last season and has continued with the type of recruitment campaign those in other states would expect from the Redbacks.
Once the off-season began Sorell, who was previously Australia's women's coach, searched desperately for interstate talent, but after missing out on the one-Test opener Chris Rogers, all he could secure was a handful of fringe players. Michael Klinger (39 first-class games in ten seasons with Victoria), Aaron O'Brien (20 first-class appearances for New South Wales since 2001-02) and Tom Cooper, a promising 21-year-old, were classed as "important announcements". The final addition to the squad, which was released on Friday, was Allan Wise, a 29-year-old bowler from Victoria, who has struggled with stress fractures and managed four Pura Cup games last season.
Not even the steady Grant Lambert or Greg Mail, who are borderline first-team players at the Blues, could be persuaded to fly south-west. A new selection panel that will have to deal with the changes is also due to be announced.
Into all this steps Younis (the SACA is calling him Younus) as South Australia's "marquee player". It's unlikely the state's misadventures over the past couple of years were at the top of Sorell's clipboard of reasons to convince Younis to stop over in Adelaide. Football clubs have been known to send postcards of picturesque local sights to prospective targets and Younis' homes in Karachi and Mardan, in the North-West Frontier Province, must be packed with shots from every direction of the SACA's beautiful oval.
Overseas signings in the Australian domestic scene are rare, mainly because among the states' main priorities is developing talent for the national teams. Younis will be available for six Pura Cup games and up to eight one-day matches before he flies back for Pakistan's series against India. Then there is the possible "return to Adelaide for the finals, if required".
Sorell said Younis, who has played 58 Tests and 167 ODIs, would provide the "young South Australian batsmen with unprecedented experience", which seems to undermine the career of Lehmann (27 Tests, 117 ODIs and two World Cups). Lehmann provided thousands of runs and an inimitable leadership style that was not achievable for his less naturally talented team-mates, but not even his dependable output could lift the side above mediocrity. He was so disillusioned by his experiences with the state when he retired in November that it took him months to rekindle his love of the game.
Now Younis has much less time to achieve something Lehmann could not do. Younis has a mentoring role in the Pakistan set-up, but how his modest English translates to his new team-mates will be crucial to the success of the gamble. Attracting Younis to Adelaide is undoubtedly a coup, but the appointment is a short-sighted mistake no matter how big the repayment of runs.
The money could have been spent in better ways and even if South Australia's attendances quadruple - a crowd of 1000 is healthy for a Pura Cup day - it is hard to see where the benefits will come from during such a short stint. The young South Australian batsmen will have only a few months in Younis' classroom. A similar appointment involving the Zimbabwe great Andy Flower in 2003-04 did not create a legacy of success.
Instead the allrounder Harris could have been given the three-year contract he wanted rather than the offer of two that sent him to Queensland. Or the money could have gone straight into more youth programmes or expanding the SACA's game development department. Or spent on attracting high-profile coaches into short-term consultancies to provide the professional knowledge that the relatively inexperienced Sorell and his team are missing.
The flurry of strange developments will probably help Younis feel more comfortable with the Redbacks. If South Australia's results were more unpredictable they could easily be labelled the Pakistan of Australian cricket. From a distance they are entertaining to watch for their eventful, volatile and ultimately futile attempts for stability and on-field success. But if there is a clause in Younis' contract that says "available for the finals, if required", it is the most unnecessary line in the document.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo