October 20, 2012

What's the matter with South Australia?

Though they've done well in limited-overs competition, they've floundered in first-class cricket for a number of seasons

The South Australian cricket team appears to have made an art form of losing Sheffield Shield matches. Yet, there seems to be a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde aspect to it. As a collective, they appear to have a split personality: they lose first-class matches meekly and with impunity, yet are somehow magically transformed into fierce combatants in limited-overs cricket.

Of their 20 games over the last two Sheffield Shield seasons, SA have won one; they have lost eight of their last nine matches outright. This summer SA have been thrashed by Queensland at the Gabba and Tasmania at Adelaide Oval, bringing forth an apology to fans by team coach Darren Berry.

The state's cricket enthusiasts are at a loss to discover why SA can be so good in one form of the game and so bad in another.

In the 2010-11 Big Bash, SA thrashed NSW by eight wickets in the final before 27,920 fans at Adelaide Oval. NSW's 153 for 8 came from their full quota of 20 overs. Kane Richardson (3 for 31) and Nathan Lyon (2 for 37) were SA's most successful bowlers. Then Dan Harris (48 not out) and Cameron Borgas (62 not out) steered the Redbacks to an easy victory. Last season SA won the Ryobi Cup one-day trophy, and they recently lost by just three runs in a reprise of the final with Tasmania.

However, the major concern is SA's performance in the Sheffield Shield. Most people who know their cricket would agree that the first-class game is the most testing of all formats and the one that sorts the wheat from the chaff among players.

There was a perception that SA needed steel, that they were collectively soft, and so Berry and high-performance manager Jamie Cox head-hunted the highly competitive South African offspinner Johan Botha to captain SA in all forms of the game. It would seem, though, that Berry and Cox have drawn a long bow in recruiting Botha. The South African has a modest first-class record, with 3223 runs at 33.92 and 157 wickets at an average of 31.94 in 68 matches. As captain of SA against Tasmania, Botha presided over the embarrassing innings-and-30 runs loss to the visitors recently. His contribution in that game was 1 for 63 off 15 overs, plus a duck and 5 with the bat. In 40 T20 internationals Botha has fared much better with the ball, taking 37 wickets at an average of 22.24.

SA's Sheffield Shield results over recent years are unacceptable and one gleans that knives are being sharpened, but an across-the-board series of sackings doesn't seem to be the way to go. Berry is a personable, strong and competitive man, and is hell-bent upon lifting the struggling Shield wooden spooners. However, unacceptable results and what appears to be a problem of poor talent identification pose questions for him and Cox. In any other business, heads would roll if a company continued to return poor results for its stakeholders.

About a decade ago SACA axed the Elizabeth side from the grade competition. The move was short-sighted, for Elizabeth was at the heart of a population explosion north of the city, and the region needs at least two grade clubs (Salisbury, now Northern Districts, and Elizabeth) to service it. Now the competition has an uneven number of teams and one team has to sit out proceedings each week. They call it a bye. Former SA and Test wicketkeeper and ICC referee Barry Jarman believes the competition should include a side exclusively made up of country-based cricketers. Over the years some 60% of the NSW Shield side has come from country-born players, including Don Bradman, Bill O'Reilly and Doug Walters. In SA, by contrast, country players seem to be ignored, only ever getting a go if they commit to move to the city and play in the grade competition.

Within the SA playing list, batsman Callum Ferguson has disappointed. His performances are a perfect illustration of the split personality of the side. A player with exceptional skills, Ferguson has, in 65 first-class matches, scored 3957 runs at an average of 35.33. In 30 ODIs he has fared much better - 663 runs at 41.43. Ferguson is a young man with tremendous potential and quickly needs to start realising that talent with consistent scores.

While SA's administrators have worked tirelessly to convert the lovely old colonial ground that was Adelaide Oval to a mini-MCG, its cricket team has fallen in a hole. Some say while the ground has lost its soul, the team has lost its way

Dan Harris, who was axed from the SA list over the winter, had bumper years in 2008-09, with 813 Shield runs, and 2009-10, with 622, but he struggled last summer and this year made way for Phillip Hughes to open with Michael Klinger. Yet if SA didn't go for Botha to lead the state, Harris was the man best equipped to assume the captaincy. He has hit 3329 runs at 31.11 and was a batsman with a great work ethic, able to turn around his form.

Dan Christian is another who has largely underachieved in first-class cricket. In 34 matches he has scored 1553 runs at 29.30 and taken 89 wickets at 35.78. A zippy fast-medium bowler and hard-hitting batsman, Christian seems to play better in the limited-overs format.

Nathan Lyon's bowling has fallen away in recent times and his Shield figures this summer (57.5 overs, 225 runs, 2 wickets at 112) aren't flattering and provide another headache for the national selectors.

SA has the most brilliant practice facilities - arguably the best in the world - yet they have struggled to field a consistently successful Shield side. In recent times they have seen Ryan Harris depart to Queensland, the burly Mark Cosgrove leave for Tasmania, and years before, Dan Marsh go to Tasmania before carving a wonderful career there. Cosgrove was virtually given his marching orders because of weight issues. Yes, he is a little on the roly-poly side, but like Peter Burge, Colin Milburn and Barry Shepherd of old, he can surely bat, possesses safe hands, and is remarkably nimble close to the wicket.

A while ago Australian cricket was subject to the Argus Report, which resulted in, among other things, an immediate change of the national coach - with Mickey Arthur taking over from Tim Nielsen, who now holds a coaching role with SA - and a clean sweep of the national selection committee. While SA's administrators have worked tirelessly to convert the lovely old colonial ground that was Adelaide Oval to a mini-MCG, its cricket team has fallen in a hole. Some say while the ground has lost its soul, the team has lost its way. The lengthy demise, which has seen SA earn the dubious honour of finishing last in the Sheffield Shield three summers running, should be unacceptable to the SACA committee. A couple of limited-overs trophies should not be allowed to paper over the cracks of what appears to be a flawed system. In the wake of repeated failure, SA cricket desperately needs a review of the Argus kind.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on October 23, 2012, 5:15 GMT

    saca need to get rid of the bye by a combination of combining some of the inner metro sides in favour of new outer metro clubs and getting rid of university. They do not contribute to grooming young cricketers and are a remnant from the past. Will this happen? not likely because internal saca politics will continue to prop them up. Looking at the district comp. in WA it is noticeable that changes have been made as their population has grown and spread out.

  • Roo on October 22, 2012, 12:11 GMT

    @MrPud... @ Barnesy4444... Fully agree with your comms... Old boys school is beyond a joke... SACA have done very little to promote the sport other than from within the inner city... No matter how anyone can complain about interstate players, it is the weakness of the State comp that has brought about the last few decades in the drop in the Redbacks SS standards...

  • Brenton on October 22, 2012, 9:38 GMT

    Mr Pud is right. The traditional inner suburban clubs need to merge. The expanding north, south and hills are where the young people are so this is where sports clubs need to be. Fewer clubs and stronger competition.

  • David on October 22, 2012, 6:27 GMT

    There are definitely too many grade clubs in Adelaide and not enough in the expanding population areas of the north, south and hills regions. Instead of investing a lot of money importing a captain, this should have been used as an incentive for clubs to merge. The western suburbs have Port Adelaide, Woodville, West Torrens and Glenelg all within a small area. Near to the city are Prospect, Adelaide, University, Sturt, Kensington and East Torrens. The population growth areas of the north and northeast only have Northern Districts and Tea Tree Gully clubs. The south only has Southern Districts and there is no club at all in the fast growing area of Mount Barker. The old stuffed shirts of the SACA need to make some tough decisions and invest in the expanding areas.

  • Roo on October 22, 2012, 5:38 GMT

    @Ashley Mallett... Re: your Botha comms being mediocre (though many would be happy to have his combined batting & bowling figures)... But a captain isn't just picked for batting alone these days otherwise how would Inverarity get to be head selector, or Arthur as the head coach or De Winter the bowling coach on their mediocre or lack of Test & FC figures?... Botha is a package who brings many individual assets to the team - his enthusiasm on & off the field is Ponting like, so hopefully this will spread to his team mates, or at least the younger ones... Seems also like poor form bagging a captain after 1 game or is it just that he isn't an Aussie?...

  • Roo on October 22, 2012, 5:36 GMT

    @Bernhard Sayer... Randyoz wasn't far off the money, Centrals were in 12 grandfinals in a row, lost 3, but were the minor premiers in 2 of the 3 years - very impressive in any football code... Not having a team in the region is scandalous by CSA & with the richest SANFL team based there - why not push for them to build a FC cricket team?... Seems you don't know much about Tassie - Launceston (pop.100,000) Devonport (pop.25,000) are larger than all the towns you named, also there are many large towns close by & also a heavy rural population across the north coast all within easy driving distance of Devonport (1 hour) - comparing chalk & cheese imho...

  • Guy on October 22, 2012, 5:03 GMT

    I'm not looking to make excuses for the state of South Australian cricket, but the importance of country cricket is a pretty relevant point. In particular, SA has a very urbanised population with a very limited country population to draw on for cricket talent. Cricket is a time-consuming game - maybe it's losing appeal for city kids, but the country boys keep playing - if that is the case, SA will suffer more than any other state, proportionally. I'm also tempted to suggest that Aussie Rules is too popular for talented young sportsmen (e.g. Port Power's Hamish Hartlett was SA's U18 cricket captain a few years ago), but Tasmania, Vic and WA would also have the same excuse. Other than my first point, I can't think of any reason why SA can't cobble together a combination of homegrown talent and imports to match the level of success Tassie has achieved consistently for about a decade or more.

  • Andrew on October 22, 2012, 0:04 GMT

    @Bernhard Sayer - good points, there shouldn't be anything wrong with playing one or two matches away from Adelaide Oval every year. NSW regularly use Suburban grounds & do ship matches out regionally.

  • Dummy4 on October 21, 2012, 11:32 GMT

    RandyOZ - first of all, I don't think you'll find any record book saying that Centrals won 10 flags in a row, so just calm down there. But I agree with most of the comments here. Interesting point about today's Ryobi Cup game - how many of the 11 were South Australian? Two. Just two. I know the game is changing in this respect, but this is ridiculous. Mallett's comments about country cricketers is well made. Another interesting thing to consider is our continued addiction to playing all cricket at Adelaide Oval. With the stadium redevelopment, why couldn't we play a Shield game at Berri, or Mount Gambier, or Murray Bridge, or Port Lincoln? If Tassie can play games at Devonport and Launceston, and other states at non-metro grounds as has happened over the last 20-30 years, why can't we? For god's sake, if Berri can host a World Cup game (as it did in 1992) then surely it's OK for them to host a Shield game! Too reliant on imports, not prepared to spread the game beyond Adel.

  • Andrew on October 21, 2012, 8:28 GMT

    First post didn't go thru, article was interesting but apart from the Grade cricket in Adelaide, there wasn't any pointers as to what is wrong in SA cricket. Did catelogue the oddness of their results, strong in the short forms & underperforming in the Shield. == == == I note that George got a 6fer in the Futures League, & Kane Richardson got a 6fer in the Ryob against QLD - both players haven't played Shield this season yet, so there is a chance to improve. == == == Whilst I didn't think much of the appointment of Botha, & his debut was also underwhelming, I think his appointment's success is too early to judge. == == == @NeilCameron on (October 20 2012, 07:34 AM GMT) - I know he was born in NZ, & was mature age when he came to Oz - but Clarrie Grimmett?

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