Tigers burning bright
Tasmanian cricket is the little engine that could. Lacking the size, the population and even the favourable weather of its mainland cousins, the Tigers have nonetheless established the strongest team culture in the Sheffield Shield, and proved it by lifting the venerable trophy at the end of 2010-11 - the second time the state had done so in the past five years.
Such success from modest means says much for the leadership of the captain, George Bailey, the coach, Tim Coyle, and the now-departing manager of cricket, David Boon. But it should also serve as a lesson for the rest of the states and the national team, as Australian cricket wrestles with itself via a pair of wide-ranging reviews in the wake of a desolate home Ashes summer.
Bailey, a man of unfailingly sunny countenance but also plenty of grit and shrewdness on the field of play, learned his trade under the likes of Dan Marsh, Michael Di Venuto and, occasionally, Ricky Ponting. He believes the Tigers have succeeded by building a strong and stable team over several years, avoiding short-term decisions and melding home-grown youth with a smattering of interstate acquisitions. Some to the north have sniggered at Tasmania's penchant for poaching, but Bailey's response to this is pragmatic.
"I think the whole argument of where your players come from is a bit out of touch," Bailey told ESPNcricinfo. "Whatever football team you follow, if you go for a team from Victoria, they don't all come from Victoria, do they? In terms of Australian cricket, you just want the best 66 players playing. If that means one year that 15 of those guys are from Tassie and one year eight of those guys are from Tassie, then that's how it is.
"I don't want to play in a competition where you're only getting a game because of where you're born. In our environment, the people who walk in the door know they're playing for Tasmania and they know the culture we're trying to provide and they know the set-up that we have and the way we play our cricket. That's something I think we do very well. We've got a very strong coaching staff - as good as any in the country.
"And then our senior group of players, who are in that late-20s age group and played a lot of cricket together - we've got a huge amount of people in that age group. Because they've played so much cricket with and against each other down the years, it just makes us a really strong group, and [there's] an opportunity for younger guys to come in, whether they're Tasmanian-born or from another state, to know the standards we've set and what's expected of them."
One roundabout measure of Tasmania's culture is the first season of Mark Cosgrove, perhaps the most talented but least disciplined batsman in the country. In South Australia he was hounded for his ample waistline, and he was expelled from the Centre of Excellence in 2007, with Aaron Finch and David Warner, for slovenly treatment of his accommodation.
"He's a very natural eye player. His hands would be as good as anyone going around at the moment. He's a bit like Darren Lehmann I suppose - just his ability to manipulate the ball around the field. And last season, on wickets that were quite challenging, at times it was like he was playing on a different wicket to the rest of us," Bailey said.
"The runs speak for themselves but just the way he fitted into the group from the moment he walked in the door, what he contributed, he's obviously a great talent, and we just tried to make him feel really comfortable and get him enjoying his cricket as much as he can.
"That's something we do quite well, I think we enjoy each other's company and we've got a pretty good bunch of blokes down here, so it was good to see Cossie grow into a role. There were times during the year when we asked him to do different things - there was a game where he opened - but that role for him in the middle order is so important for us. He's so devastating, he can really put teams on the back foot."
Tasmania spent the post-Christmas phase of the season almost exclusively on the front foot, shrugging off a middling start to go on a six-match tear that culminated in a seven-wicket defeat of New South Wales in the final. Success bred further success.
"One of the big things in Shield cricket is just getting confidence up throughout the year," Bailey said. "By the time we'd got to the Shield final we'd won five games on the trot and we had a really good belief in the group that we were a pretty good cricket team. No doubt the fact that we had a really good bowling year and we kept finding ways to take 20 wickets every time we played - I think that was probably the key to it as well."
Tasmania's startling bowling figures said as much about a damp summer as the sporting wickets the team often played on, where Luke Butterworth, James Faulkner and others zipped the ball about. Bailey acknowledges the contribution of the conditions to his side's strong summer, but also hopes for more equitable surfaces in the future.
"I can't imagine it'll be another summer as wet as it was last year, which no doubt had a huge influence on the curators' ability to prepare the surface they wanted, so I think there'll be some natural changes there," he said. "The concern for me is that I think states have worked out that a wicket like the Gabba, where you have a result every time you play, means that Queensland, who play five games a year there, are always going to be somewhere in the hunt.
"The states know there's no value in playing in draws. I saw Ricky Ponting's comments late in the season that when he was getting picked to play for Australia, guys who were picked were averaging 50 or 60 and that was the way you had to do it.
"He was also playing in an era where there were an average of 18-20 draws a year. I think now the average is seven or eight draws for the entire season. Games are being played to be won and probably on wickets that are more conducive to results. The offset is that batsmen aren't learning the craft of being able to build big innings and bat for long periods of time.
"Then when we do have to play on flatter wickets, probably at the Test level, our bowlers haven't much experience of bowling on [those] and getting the ball to reverse-swing and finding those ways to get teams out. So there's two things there that probably need to be addressed."
Another issue for Bailey is the problematic Futures League, a hybrid of second XI and under-age competition that he believes is failing to equip the next rung of domestic players. Among a range of complaints is that the over restrictions - 96 in the first innings, 48 in the second, of a three-day match - make it impossible to judge a bowler's strengths over longer spells.
Also, you're only allowed to play three players over 23. "It's become really difficult to have guys that aren't in your best XI consistently playing good, hard cricket against other teams with that under-23 rule," said Bailey. "I've got no doubt that cricket and the way the bodies are, your best cricket you play after you're 23, and it's much the same as the Australian team. I think the best Australian players are better for having a really strong first-class system, and the teams at this level playing good, hard cricket, and we're much the same.
"Domestic cricket is only as good as the depth in squads, and the guys who, when they do enter first-class cricket, are ready to play. So that's been a real challenge, to keep the guys who aren't in your immediate XI or XII playing at the level that you expect of them at first-class level."
Bailey argues the domestic season should be kept as lean as possible to maintain the high intensity of Sheffield Shield cricket that has served aspiring Australian players so well for decades.
"The strength of the competition is that we don't overplay. I think the 10 games a year means that every game is played at a really high intensity," he said. "I certainly think that's a real key to that, but I don't know whether that means it is the best domestic comp in the world. It was based on the mindset that guys had to work really hard to get into that Australian side.
"You knew you weren't going to get gifted a spot in the team. You had to put multiple strong seasons together before you got looked at, and that's one thing that you don't want to lose sight of - that's what has made Australian cricket strong. They've always picked their best players. It's not about picking players for the future or people they think are going to be good, it's about picking who is the best now."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo