Alice Springs may be at the centre of Australia, but never has it been at the centre of Australian cricket. At least, until now. From Sunday, Victoria will host South Australia in the Sheffield Shield final and, as incongruous as it may seem, they will do so nearly 2000 kilometres from the MCG, at Traeger Park in Alice Springs. Australian cricket's first-class champions will be decided by Victoria hosting South Australia in the Northern Territory.
And while it may on the surface appear to be an unusual state of affairs, such "hosting" at a neutral venue has become the norm over the past few summers. This is the third time in four years that the Shield venue will be held at a ground outside the state which has won hosting rights.
In 2014, a Major League Baseball match at the SCG clashed with the Shield final, so New South Wales opted to "host" the final at Manuka Oval in Canberra. In 2015, the MCG was unavailable due to the World Cup and Victoria had no other approved first-class venue, so they "hosted" the final in Hobart. In 2016, South Australia at least hosted in their own city but not at their main venue - Glenelg was used because of Adelaide Oval's AFL commitments.
And this summer, the start of the AFL season has again had an impact, with the MCG being used for football. So, Victoria have exercised the backup plan they have honed over the past couple of summers, using Alice Springs as a de facto home ground until the redevelopment of the Junction Oval as a revamped first-class venue is complete. And Traeger Park has worked for the Bushrangers, who have played four games there for three wins and a draw.
South Australia are yet to play a match at Traeger Park, so Victoria indeed have the advantage of familiarity. The Redbacks also know they must win to secure the Shield: a draw delivers the title to Victoria, who finished on top of the table. Such hosting rights gave South Australia the advantage last summer in a final between these same two sides, but Victoria won by seven wickets.
The slow, spinning surface at Traeger Park has suited Victoria: Fawad Ahmed and Jon Holland are jointly the leading Shield wicket takers at the venue with 19 each. Little wonder, then, that the Bushrangers have called Fawad into their squad for the final despite the fact that he has played only one other match this Shield campaign. That game, though, was in Alice Springs, where he claimed five wickets.
That means the Redbacks are still searching for their first Sheffield Shield title since 1995-96, the longest ongoing drought among the six states. Still, if you're going to break a drought, the desert seems as good a place as any to do so. The South Australia captain, Travis Head, said his men could be better off for having the final played in neutral territory, away from the pressure of expectation that engulfed them in Adelaide last year.
"I think we've come into the week more relaxed," Head said. "Last year the excitement of not being in a final for so long, and then getting the opportunity, the week went really quick and there was a lot of excitement around Adelaide. This time around we've played some great cricket, we've probably played a better season. Coming into this week I think we're a bit more relaxed."
South Australia boast the leading wicket-taker of this summer, the swing bowler Chadd Sayers, who has 54 victims at 19.20 - 12 more than his nearest rival. They have also gained fellow fast bowler Joe Mennie at an opportune time: Mennie suffered a serious head injury shortly before Christmas but on his return in the last regular game of the Shield season, he picked up nine wickets.
The leading run-scorers for the Redbacks this summer have been Tom Cooper and Jake Lehmann, though the experienced Callum Ferguson has found form at just the right time. And they have also found a wicketkeeper of serious talent: Alex Carey is on the brink of completing a 500-run/50-dismissal Shield campaign, which would be a remarkable achievement in his first full summer.
Victoria's success this season has been based around an outstanding attack, with fast bowler Chris Tremain and spinner Holland jointly sitting on 42 wickets for the season - equal second on the competition tally behind Sayers. Perhaps more notable, though, is the fact that James Pattinson has returned from injury in the second half of the season and appears to be in career-best form.
The Bushrangers will miss captain Matthew Wade, allrounders Marcus Stoinis and Glenn Maxwell, and batsman Peter Handscomb, all of whom are in India with the Test squad, but their depth should ensure a strong XI takes the field this week under the leadership of Cameron White. Should he captain Victoria to success it will be White's fifth Sheffield Shield title.
It would also be the first hat-trick of titles in Victoria's history. In 2015 they lifted the Shield in Hobart. In 2016, they did so in Adelaide. In 2017, they will hope to complete their three-peat when the centre of Australia becomes the centre of Australian cricket.
Victoria squad Travis Dean, Marcus Harris, Rob Quiney, Aaron Finch, Cameron White (capt), Daniel Christian, Seb Gotch (wk), James Pattinson, Chris Tremain, Scott Boland, Jon Holland, Fawad Ahmed.
South Australia squad Travis Head (capt), Tom Andrews, Alex Carey (wk), Tom Cooper, John Dalton, Callum Ferguson, Jake Lehmann, Joe Mennie, Kane Richardson, Chadd Sayers, Jake Weatherald, Daniel Worrall, Adam Zampa.