June 9, 2011

Going back to the grades

South Australia have been Sheffield Shield whipping boys for too long. Their new coach, Darren Berry, is confident he can change that by instilling an attacking mindset in his players

When South Australia lifted the Big Bash trophy in February, their Twenty20 coach, Darren Berry, quickly learnt how much it meant to a state deprived of silverware for 15 years.

"When we won the Twenty20 final, Graham Manou came to me and he put his arms around me and said, "Mate, I've waited a long, long time for this,'" Berry said. "I walked away and thought, 'That's sad. He's played 14 years for South Australia and this is the first thing he's won.'"

Such a drought was unfamiliar to Berry, who, as one of the best wicketkeepers in Australia, played a key role in two Sheffield Shield triumphs and a pair of one-day titles with Victoria. As coach and manager, he has helped the Rajasthan Royals win the IPL, was an assistant at Victoria in a summer when they reached all three finals, and delivered the Big Bash for the Redbacks.

The triumph set Berry's mind to work. The side had success in the short version of the game, he thought, so why not in the longer format? When he was named the state's full-time coach a few months later, it became his job to turn that idea into a reality.

It won't be an easy task. Over the past few years, fringe players have been imported from other states with limited success. Home-grown stars have been allowed to move interstate. Spinners, who should thrive at the Adelaide Oval, have been ignored. The Redbacks have finished last in the Sheffield Shield for two years running. Berry believes there is no culture of success within the side, but he is confident that can be changed.

"My experiences with this group so far have been all positive," Berry said. "I'm going to try and maintain that spirit and enthusiasm that I witnessed in the group. I'm not scarred or tainted by the past. I come in with a totally fresh sheet. Undoubtedly there is some scarring. That's because there's been a lack of success and there's been a lot of finger-pointing: it's his fault and it's her fault.

"There's definitely a lot of negativity around here in the press. But you know what? I would say rightly so, because there comes a time when you have to be accountable. I don't shy away from that at all. There has been a lot of negative press, but I don't know how much of that has been unwarranted. They haven't had success for a long time."

So long, in fact, that Berry is the eighth coach South Australia have had since they last won the Sheffield Shield under Jeff Hammond in 1995-96. What, then, can Berry do to earn the success that eluded Jamie Siddons, Andrew Sincock, Greg Chappell, Wayne Phillips, Mark Sorell and the caretaker Jeff Vaughan?

One thing is certain: he won't let his men coast along. Players will be told to go back to their grade sides for Thursday-night training, and there will be no excuses for failing to play club cricket when available. Berry is passionate about what he sees as a nation-wide problem - that grassroots cricket is losing touch with the first-class scene.

"Cricket Australia need to look at grade cricket across the country, re-invigorate it, and most importantly, value the grade system that's producing the players," Berry said. "A lot of the players have lost focus of what's got them to the top, and they don't want to play grade cricket. Under my tenure here, that will change.

"It lifts the standard and it puts accountability on the state players to go and dominate at grade level. I think we're breeding soft cricketers. We're breeding a soft generation that has no accountability at the level below, because they are getting paid good money on contracts. As soon as they get a contract, it's like, put the feet up, everything's good.

"That's not my style. Go and play grade cricket, dominate the competition and show why you are a contracted player. I'll be getting back a little bit of old-fashioned values in the group. Unless our players are seriously injured and can't play [for their clubs] - none of the old 'Oh my toenail's a bit sore' - out you go."

Berry will also be giving more game time in the state side to his frontline spinners, some of whom seem to have been forgotten about in recent seasons. Four years ago, legspinner Cullen Bailey and offspinner Dan Cullen held Cricket Australia contracts, and were viewed as the next wave of potential international spinners after Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill.

But Cullen, who played a Test in Bangladesh in 2006, has fallen off South Australia's contract list and hasn't played a first-class game for two summers, while Bailey has managed only 10 matches in four seasons. There are encouraging signs in the slow-bowling department, with the discovery of the offspinner Nathan Lyon, who came from nowhere last summer and has now rocketed into the Australia A squad.

Lyon and Bailey were used towards the end of the Sheffield Shield season, but for seven matches earlier in the year, the selectors relied solely on the allrounder Aaron O'Brien for their spin requirements, and he picked up 13 wickets at 42.07. Berry is adamant that in a state that produced Clarrie Grimmett, Ashley Mallett, Terry Jenner and Tim May, more must be done to embrace the young spinners.

"That's definitely going to change," Berry said. "My style will be attacking, learn to win, take a risk to win, and that won't be with conservative selection options. It'll be with someone like Cullen Bailey, who is a genuine spinner of the ball, to be embracive of that, or Nathan Lyon, an exciting offspinner.

"O'Brien is the all-round package. For me, he's not a frontline No. 1 spinner in Shield cricket. That'll get me in trouble but I don't care - the facts are the facts. He's not the wicket-taking Shield spinner and that's been proven over a period of time. But he certainly has a role to play within our group with his all-round skills.

"Cullen Bailey is going to be a project for me that I'm really looking forward to, to get him to perform to the potential that he has. Aaron O'Brien is a very good all-round cricketer here now and has still got a lot to offer around the group. Outside the squad, Dan Cullen is still on the periphery. Four years ago he was playing for Australia - don't tell me that you lose that. I'm very keen to embrace Dan Cullen."

Berry sees plenty of positives in the state's fast-bowling stocks as well, a group that will be mentored by Joe Dawes, the former Queensland fast man and bowling coach. There's Peter George, who made his Test debut last year, Jake Haberfield, Kane Richardson, Gary Putland and Mick Delaney, who, Berry said, "has got some genuine airspeed and will sock a few blokes if he gets an opportunity this year".

As for batsmen, Berry believes Michael Klinger and Daniel Harris, though both over 30, could still play for Australia, while younger men such as Tom Cooper, James Smith and Aiden Blizzard will be "exciting to work with". Then there's Jake Lehmann, son of Darren, who Berry describes as "a left-hander like his dad, with really nice hands, who made some good inroads last year in grade cricket".

Grade cricket, so important in Berry's plans, will be the source of most of the Redbacks' new talent on the new coach's watch. Expect the imports to stop, unless South Australia can get their hands on a major star from interstate, and the promotion of young home-grown South Australians to become more of a focus. The retirements of Manou and Ben Edmondson have already opened up two spots in the starting line-up.

And while the importing has been happening over the past few years, the Redbacks have also lost arguably their best batsman, Mark Cosgrove, and most consistent fast bowler, Ryan Harris. Cosgrove went to Tasmania and in his first season there, topped the Sheffield Shield run tally, while Harris headed to Queensland and soon wound up in Australia's Test and one-day sides. All the same, Berry believes there's plenty of talent left.

"I'm not as downcast as many people are about our list," Berry said. "We had success in the short version of the game. Why can't I convert that into the longer version? That's my challenge. I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't think there was light at the end of the tunnel."

South Australia's fans can only hope that light is the glint of more silverware.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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