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March 19, 2014
At the close of Australian cricket's redemption summer, it is altogether fitting that the Sheffield Shield final will be contested by New South Wales and Western Australia. This is not to say that there were not other suitable emblems of domestic rejuvenation to be seen - an appearance by South Australia would have carried similar weight - but the rapid progress made by both the Blues and the Warriors mirrors that of the national team.
Both sides had fallen short of expectations created by proud histories; NSW in recent seasons, WA for a generation. Both had also been riven by internal problems of politics, discipline and the like. And now, both can glimpse the chance to claim a Shield title that would not only be proof of major progress, but also the potential starting point for years of domination. There is youth aplenty to be found in each squad, and tangible hunger for success not hard to locate in either.
That yearning is there for the simple reason that each side knows how it feels to be dragged through the muck of underperformance. Last season brought messy results and plenty of changes in both states, as the management and board of each association tried to generate a more productive and constructive environment for their players. For NSW, this was something new to deal with, whereas for WA it was not. Each found a way by calling on a combination of new blood in senior management and older, wiser heads in the coaching and playing divisions.
For the nation's most populous state, a drought of five seasons without a Shield victory had caused patience to wear thin. The sense of dissatisfaction was reflected in the exits last summer of the board chairman Harry Harinath, the chief executive Dave Gilbert and the coach Anthony Stuart, plus the resignation of Steve O'Keefe as captain. The circumstances of each departure were slightly different, but all could be charted back to the stalling of the state team despite unrivaled playing resources.
In the places of Harinath and Gilbert arrived an energetic new chairman in John Warn and a strategic-minded and Cricket Australia-groomed chief executive in Andrew Jones. Together, they re-enfranchised the state's lobby of past players - a concept similar to the one taken by Darren Lehmann with Australia - and returned the coaching job to Trevor Bayliss, a widely travelled and laconic figure, commuting from Penrith but never distant from the needs and insecurities of his men. It is said that he was the only coaching candidate not to state his case via Power-point presentation.
Duly freed from the captaincy that had burdened him, O'Keefe was allowed to regather himself as a slow bowling allrounder, while leadership was returned to the capable hands of Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin, Steve Smith and, when they were on national duty, Peter Nevill. Team selection was settled down somewhat, as batsmen and bowlers had the chance to settle into their positions. The greatest beneficiaries of this faith were the articulate Ryan Carters, once a fringe 'keeper for Victoria but now a central plank of the Blues batting, and the swift Sean Abbott, no longer just a T20 moonlighter.
A team that had been fraught with doubt, questions about management and coaching choices and not coping with frequent ins and outs from the Australian side has grown more comfortable in its own skin. Confidence has also been derived from the fact that Bayliss has been free to run the team his way, while Jones' only major intervention - to hand David Warner a suspended sentence for missing a mandatory club fixture - seemed to light the touchpaper for the opener's explosive season, which began with a volley of limited overs hundreds at North Sydney Oval.
|Both sides had fallen short of expectations created by proud histories; NSW in recent seasons, WA for a generation. Both had also been riven by internal problems of politics, discipline and the like. And now, both can glimpse the chance to claim a Shield title that would not only be proof of major progress, but also the potential starting point for years of domination|
If Shield results were not quite stellar, they were consistent enough to keep the Blues at the top of the table. They were second at the BBL break, and first at the end of 10 rounds. Now playing the final at Manuka Oval in Canberra due to the awkward scheduling of Major League Baseball at the SCG, they will rely heavily on the spin of O'Keefe (40 wickets to date this season) and the Test spinner Nathan Lyon to support Abbott and Josh Hazlewood, while Carters will hope to crest 1,000 first-class runs for the season in his final match.
Another within sight of that mark this week is Marcus North, newly crowed as the State player of the year. His resurgence, after looking very likely to have reached the end of his batting tether, sums up that of WA, a once-proud cricket state learning how to do it all again after well over a decade of profligacy. So far had the state slipped that the chief executive Christina Matthews had been forced in 2012 to commission a "cultural review" following alarming lapses in discipline and a near total collapse in the chain of command that led to the resignation of the coach Lachlan Stevens.
A good and honourable man, Stevens had nonetheless been confounded by endemic problems that stretched deep into club cricket, while lacking the gravitas of a staunch playing record to call-out his pupils on their wayward tendencies. His replacement was to have few such difficulties - Justin Langer being a byword for commitment, courage and a relentless pursuit of excellence. He made decent strides in the back half of 2012-13, as the Warriors fell narrowly short of the Shield final.
Those results would normally have led to several rounds celebration from players who had grown content with a cycle far more bust than boom, but it was in clamping down hard on any such notion that Langer raised the bar for his players. Demanding of them in recovery sessions that followed the final two Shield fixtures, Langer made it very clear that he was not content and nor should they be. As he said earlier this week when asked if his young side would play without knowledge of failure at Manuka: "They know the thought of failure don't worry about that. They've felt it."
Numerous moves needed to be made between seasons to ensure WA had a team worthy of the name. Michael Hogan's reliable seam and swing were retained when CA passed a rule change allowing EU passport holders to keep a foot in both England and Australia, and the priorities of the young allrounder Mitchell Marsh were also realigned, away from T20 glitz towards first-class substance that will take him to County cricket rather than the IPL during the winter.
After Michael Hussey was lost to retirement and/or the Sydney Thunder relief project, Langer called on Simon Katich to add some short-term steel to the domestic limited overs side. But it was the recall of North to open the batting, and investment in the captaincy of Adam Voges, that made a major difference. Gifted but occasionally diffident figures over the years, both men bought in solidly to Langer's ethos, pulling along younger players with them.
So it was that the likes of Sam Whiteman, Jason Behrendorff and the shooting star Ashton Agar began also to flourish, alongside the perennially talented yet enigmatic Shaun Marsh. Nathan Coulter-Nile's pace came in handy too. As with last summer, the Warriors' final qualifying fixture ended in defeat, significantly to NSW in Canberra. Equally noteworthy however was the manner in which the match played out - bowled out for 82 on day one, they fought and scrapped to the last. Langer liked what he saw, but he will not be content with it.
"Winning a Shield final would be nice. Winning five or six would be the ultimate," Langer said. "When I took on the job I knew it wasn't going to be a short term fix - I knew there wasn't any magic dust. We're looking to build a dynasty of success in West Australian cricket. It's nice to have the opportunity to start that this weekend."
Victory in the final would not only be the end of a successful season for NSW or WA, but also the start of something new and exciting. Either way, Australian cricket will be the ultimate beneficiary.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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