May 27, 2011

Tigers burning bright

With Australian cricket at a low, Tasmania's model of strong results and stronger team culture stands out like a beacon

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on May 30, 2011, 4:26 GMT

    @F Fabian/B Cole/J Scott - technically NSW had 9 players out due to International commitments or injury apart from "..Watson, Haddin, Smith, Clarke, Bollinger..." there was Clark, Hauritz, Hazlewood & Starc. Not including Bracken who retired toward the end of the season. Either way it was a good win by Tassie as NSW still had 5 internationals in their top 6. On the topic of population base - the fact is tassie have played 4 NSW players thru-out the season in Cowan, Drew, Maher & Krezja, Victoria 2 players (Wright & Hastings), Sth Oz 5 (Christian, Cooper, Lyon, O'Brien & Lang). -- -- -- Its a fact of life that since the early 80s, NSW have not been able to field full strength sides for the Shield Final. I seriously doubt it would make winning any less sweet for Tassie! -- -- -- Do believe that the standard of pitches need to be reviewed for next season AND monitored through out. Points should be docked if a pitch is deemed substandard.

  • Ash on May 29, 2011, 15:12 GMT

    I'm amazed it took this long for someone involved in Cricket in Australia to say this: 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." Surely Australia would have given themselves a much better chance of retaining the Ashes and winning the World Cup had they listened to common sense. Oh well Congrats on a great year by the Tigers!

  • Dummy4 on May 28, 2011, 7:56 GMT

    To discredit Fabian Francis' comments a bit further. Players missing from the Shield Final because of World Cup duties: NSW 5 (Watson, Haddin, Smith, Clarke, Bollinger), Tasmania 3 (Paine, Krezja, Ponting). Lee doesn't count as he's retired from first class cricket. That doesn't look like 11 NSW players to me and Tassie were missing several core players too. Yes, NSW were missing more players, but considering the population differences, the ratio of national reps per available players is heavily against Tasmania. Just goes to show how well Bailey manages to work with what he's got.

  • Dummy4 on May 28, 2011, 1:31 GMT

    Ah, good to see Fabian Francis has trotted out the tired ol' 'New South Wales had so many players out' line. Some quick facts Fabian - NSW population: 7238819, Tasmania population: 507626. Sydney Grade Cricket clubs: 20, Hobart Grade Cricket Clubs 8. Test players in NSW side for final:4, Tasmania 2. Great article from Daniel, about time there was a story about the success that this state has produced with far less infrastructure than the so called bigger states.

  • Lou on May 27, 2011, 19:49 GMT

    Bailey sounds a smart cookie, but he's been sucked in by Punter's talk of the high averages before you get selected for Aus. That only came in a long time after Punter got his break and it wasn't always applied then. Clarke wasn't even averaging 40 when he was swept up into the test team.

    And some of the bowlers, like McGrath, Gillespie and Warne had played half to one season of first class cricket when they got called up. I suppose everybody eventually turns into Neal Harvey.

  • Christopher on May 27, 2011, 12:54 GMT

    What a statesman.A wonderful precis of the difficulties besetting australian cricket,their causes and solutions.The reviews would do well to heed George Bailey and his recommendation ie a return to those well established values that,not coincidentally,pre-date this current administration and its debacle.Not a single member,from Sutherland,Jack Clarke,Hilditch,Boon,Cox,Nielsen,our batting,bowling,fielding coaches,trainers & physios have warranted performance based contract extensions and yet they remain.In summary-the system wasnt broken until players were being chosen on potential,where they were from or on some fanciful theory,rather than on their current records.It damaged and ruined great players careers through non-selection or technical interference.It has cheapened the brand of australian test cricket and deprived the public of the quality it is their right to expect.Of Bailey,here is a man of whom it can trully be said,he has extracted the maximum from his available resources.

  • Michael on May 27, 2011, 11:49 GMT

    Blame the fututres league on mike copped heaps about how someone could score so many runs before playing for their country so this was the solution, a poor one at that. Because of the era we lost a generation of great cricketers... qld won bulk shields because they had 5-6 test standard cricketers who couldnt get a baggy green... we bevame the best due to our innovations ais etc and then we kept making mistakes or rested on our laurels.. we no longer have the cattle

  • Dummy4 on May 27, 2011, 10:26 GMT

    There are over 11 NSW players usually unavailable for Shield because of international call ups.

    Let's see Tassie win the Shield under those circumstances.

  • Dummy4 on May 27, 2011, 8:36 GMT

    Dare I suggest that Bailey might be a better bet for Australian test captain than a certain bleached blonde twitterer...?

  • Philip on May 27, 2011, 8:32 GMT

    I think Bailey may be right about the Futures League. There's too much empasis on youth and not enough on experience. Perhaps it wouldn't be quite such a problem if the Sheffield Shield ranks were stronger, it might filter down a bit, but even so the U23 FL could still be tweaked. Still, complaining about the FC arena shouldn't take anything away from Tassie - they've certainly put some results on the board. With all the brouhaha over Shane Watson & his IPL exposure etc, people forget that Tassie had a hand in his early story too.

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