Saker rings wagons around Shield final
Victoria's coach David Saker has mounted an impassioned defence of the Sheffield Shield final, saying he would be "shattered" if Cricket Australia excised the pinnacle of a domestic competition he rates comfortably ahead of the County Championship after his years as an assistant coach with England.
The Bushrangers flew into Adelaide on Thursday ahead of a meeting with South Australia that reflects the increasingly marginalised state of the Shield decider - played at Glenelg rather than Adelaide Oval, clashing with the opening round of the AFL season and broadcast only through a streaming service by CA's website.
Saker, however, argued the Shield final should be cherished as an Australian strength relative to the English game, in that a leaner domestic tournament was taken to an even higher pitch of intensity and therefore learning by staging a play-off match.
"It is very important to Australian cricket," Saker told ESPNcricinfo. "If you take away the Sheffield Shield final you're taking importance away from the game of Sheffield Shield cricket and if you ask any of the players what they think about it and what they strive to do it is to play in a Sheffield Shield final.
"It's as close to a Test match as some of them will ever get, and the day they scrap that would be a poor day for Australian cricket in my opinion. The people making those decisions are more qualified than me, but I've been in the first-class system for a long time and I'd be shattered if that was the case, if we lost the Shield final."
There is a sense of ambivalence at CA about the final, summed up by the former chairman Wally Edwards at last year's AGM: "I don't think it plays any real part in our season. When I played Shield cricket, we didn't have a Shield final. The Shield final, over many years, has proved itself to be a bit of a non-event, to be honest."
The chief executive James Sutherland has said the final could make way for an expanded Big Bash League schedule. Neither Sutherland, nor Edwards' successor David Peever, will be present for this year's final, as they will be in India for meetings around the World Twenty20 tournament.
More broadly, Saker judged the Shield to be the superior competition to the County Championship, pointing to the number of dead fixtures played out over the lengthy English season. The high volume of matches has been a valuable tool for many players learning their craft, but Saker said the greater intensity of Shield contests was his preference.
"I still think the Shield system is as good as you get," he said. "It's so competitive and that's been shown again this year in the last three or four weeks of the competition, so tight and so hard to compete. That's the one thing we've got over the English system with so many dead games in the County system. Since it's become first and second division it has got better, but the Sheffield Shield is still the pinnacle of first-class cricket in the world."
At the end of his first season back in Victoria after a largely successful stint as mentor to England's pace bowlers, Saker reflected on a role that has occasionally brought him into conflict with CA. Most notably, he was rebuked by the national team coach Darren Lehmann for taking issue with the handling of James Pattinson at the start of the summer, an experience that left Saker somewhat chastened. He counselled the game's custodians against hubris.
"It has had some hiccups because obviously I've said some things in the press that maybe I shouldn't have said," Saker said. "Most of the time I'm just trying to support the players in my team and what I think is best for the Victorian team. Not at any stage have I said things to downgrade the Australian team or the system. I think it's a good system, I think they still need to tinker with some things to a degree.
"What you have to be aware of no matter what organisation you're in, you should never think your organisation does it better than someone else. I think you should always be open-minded to how others do things, and that's not just in cricket, that's in life and business. You've got to be open-minded enough to take some ideas from other teams and countries and use them, and make sure you're not blinkered."
A source of tension in recent times has been the introduction of a strategy for CA and the states called One Team, which takes the view that all should be moving in the same direction with the same goals. While Saker agreed with the overall concept, he argued that states should still be allowed to develop their own coaching philosophies and approaches in a truly competitive environment, rather than turning the Shield into a mere greenhouse for emerging talent.
"I'm all for this One Team idea, but I also think we should be trying to have our own ideas from our states, so if we want to have our own coaching philosophies or ways of going about it that should be encouraged," Saker said. "If you have six teams coached in the same way and trying to coach the same way, I can't see that being a good thing.
"One of the beauties of the Shield system is it is usually coaches having control of the team and coming up with their own ideas of how to coach and how to train. Sometimes in my brief time so far back in Australia we're getting taught how to coach, instead of letting the coaches coach. Of course we want to come together and share our ideas, but in the Shield system and the way we've produced players across all the states, they should get a free rein on how they run their system.
"I'm sure they [CA] understand that, and I think we'll eventually get to that stage, but it's just in its infancy at the moment with One Team so I'm sure it'll get to that."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig