July 13, 2011

Keeping the premiership window open

Victoria have made 14 of the last 18 state finals. Now they face the challenge of bouncing back after their first disappointing summer in years

Victoria is an AFL state. Even in summer, its theoretical off season, Aussie Rules Football, with all its scandals and speculation, robs cricket of headlines. And when the Australian team has to fight for a place on the back page, you can imagine how deep into the sports section readers must delve before a story about the Victorian Bushrangers appears.

That's a shame, because over the past six years the Bushrangers have been one of the most dominant teams in Australian sport. They have reached 14 of the past 18 state finals and have raised seven trophies. In that time they have groomed six Test debutants, second only to New South Wales, and they are the only state to have kept the same captain and coach (Cameron White and Greg Shipperd).

But now, in AFL terminology, their premiership window is threatening to close. Although they won the Ryobi One-Day Cup last summer, for the first time in a decade they finished in the bottom two on the Sheffield Shield table. Something just didn't click, and Shipperd is desperate to make sure that, to borrow another AFL-ism, they don't bottom out.

"We don't want to be yo-yoing as a group," Shipperd told ESPNcricinfo. "With 14 finals out of the last 18, we've been, in terms of consistency, a benchmark team. We really want to push on and maintain our standards. It will be challenging, though."

One of the major tasks will be to build a match-winning attack. Last summer, only two of the Sheffield Shield's top 20 wicket-takers were Victorians. And neither will play much for Victoria next season: Damien Wright has retired and Peter Siddle should spend most of his time on international duty.

Also gone from the attack are three of Victoria's oldest heads: the 39-year-old legspinner Bryce McGain, and fast bowlers Dirk Nannes, 35, and Shane Harwood, 37. Of those three, only McGain played in the Shield last season, but the combined experience from the trio, who lost their Cricket Victoria contracts last month, will be hard to replace.

Victorian fans can expect Clint McKay and James Pattinson to be key men in the bowling group this season. There will also be some aggression from the newly contracted pace bowler Jayde Herrick, whose bald head, black headband and tattooed arms could well become a fixture of Victoria's side this summer. There's plenty of other young talent in the rest of the squad as well.

"We've released four senior match-winners from our squad last season who provided us with fantastic cricket over a long period of time," Shipperd said. "We'll miss them for sure, but we're equally excited by the young players we're developing, and Ryan Carters, Aaron Finch, Matthew Wade, Glenn Maxwell and Jon Holland are just some of the names that are going to lead Victoria in the years to come.

"Our board certainly wanted in the previous five years to find that balance between winning titles and producing Australian players. Across that period of time I think we've generated about 12 Australian players in the three forms of the game, so we've actually been ticking both boxes there. But given Australia's situation in the longer form of the game, there's been an even greater importance put on developing Test players of the future. We've probably gone a fraction younger a bit earlier than we might normally have done. We're looking forward to seeing that process unfold."

Not that the older members of the squad have nothing to offer. Chris Rogers, 33, is keen to have a productive season after missing much of 2010-11 with a knee injury, and David Hussey, also 33, wants to prove he is good enough to earn a baggy green, after surprisingly winning a Cricket Australia contract this year.

And the allrounder Andrew McDonald, 30, has a point to prove, having slipped off CA's contract list. McDonald had an injury-interrupted season last summer, but when he was in the side he was unstoppable. In his six Sheffield Shield appearances, he made three centuries - no other player in the competition made that many in a tough season for batsmen - and averaged 76.33.

Even more impressive was the way he scored his runs. At Test level, McDonald looked rigid at the crease and was hesitant to play his shots. For Victoria last year, he loosened up and scored at a strike rate of 84.97 in the longer format. McDonald was the one batsman who might have managed a thousand-run season were it not for his injuries, and Shipperd expects him to have a big summer again.

"Every good judge in Australia would certainly agree that Andrew McDonald is still a worthy international-quality player, and but for injury last season, he would have just knocked the door down that strongly that he could not be ignored," Shipperd said. "I expect that he's in the prime in terms of his cricketing powers right now. His next couple of years, I'm sure he's going to perform some deeds that would have him beautifully placed to take the place of someone like Watson, should he be injured, for the Australian team."

That McDonald was able to thrive in such a difficult season for batsmen was not enough to help Victoria reach the final of the Sheffield Shield. They did, however, get to the decider in the Ryobi Cup, for the fifth straight season. And after being runners-up four years in a row, the Bushrangers finally won the title summer.

When the team huddled around for the traditional celebratory photo with the trophy, Shipperd was at the back, while his assistant coach, Simon Helmot, was front and centre. Helmot had taken over the coaching of the one-day team for that campaign, with Shipperd as his helper - the roles reversed from the Sheffield Shield. It's an arrangement that will continue next season. Shipperd likens it to the AFL team, Collingwood, whose premiership coach, Mick Malthouse, will eventually be replaced by his assistant, Nathan Buckley, by mutual agreement.

"That was the proposal we came up with last year to allow him to spread his wings as a coach, and it was just the natural thing for Cricket Victoria to do, in terms of down the track finding a succession plan for me and a development plan for Simon that worked really well. He's a terrific young coach. I assisted him in the Ryobi Cup and he assisted me in the Shield, but we both took responsibility for the whole Bushrangers programme."

Adding to the complex relationship between Shipperd and Helmot are their roles in the Big Bash League, where they will coach against each other. Helmot has taken charge of the Docklands-based Melbourne Renegades, while Shipperd has control of the Stars, who will play at the MCG. The state's players have also split into two camps, and Shipperd said it would be hard, for the younger players especially, to find the balance between being Twenty20 opponents and team-mates in the longer forms.

"It will be mentally challenging for them, because one of the strengths of our squad has been its closeness, and the success that they've had over this last five to eight years is because of the quality of the team and the way they've interacted as a group. That essentially has been split in two. The more senior players are not totally unfamiliar with that environment, having played against each other. We had 11 players in the IPL last year, so a lot of them played against each other and have been through those emotions before."

A few of the older players also know the feeling of failure - from 1991 to 2003, Victoria didn't win a Sheffield Shield title. Mastering the switch between formats will be one of many key factors if they are to keep their premiership window open. The grand era of Shipperd's Bushrangers might earn a few more column inches yet.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo