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