Punching above its weight

Mike Bingham
Steadiness and stars continue to steer Tasmanian cricket into a bright future

For a place that was founded in 1803 as a penal colony for thousands of British convicts, Hobart has come a long way. The Tasmanian capital is the nation's second oldest city and is home to 220,000 people.

The journey since 1803 has often been a struggle, given its isolation from the Australian mainland and lack of investment, but in recent times the gloom has given way to optimism and pride as Hobart and the entire island benefit from a clean, green image. The city's small population is increasingly diverse, thanks largely to the century-old University of Tasmania, which is home to thousands of international students, including Chinese, Indians, Malaysians and Thais.

The lifestyle is relaxed and the people are welcoming to visitors and have time to talk. No surprise in a city in which peak hour lasts all of 15 minutes. Australia's smallest capital has a lot to offer, including an amazing and diverse range of restaurants, and a thriving arts scene.

The inner city itself has escaped most of the modern development that swept away much of the colonial heritage architecture in places like Sydney and Melbourne. Instead, whole streetscapes retain touches of Georgian grandeur.

With Mt Wellington (1271 metres) at its back and the broad Derwent river estuary creating a deep water harbour - rated by many as second only to Sydney - Hobart's setting is spectacular. Each summer, the port hosts at least 40 cruise-ship visits.

The mountain is a marvellous vantage point from which to look over Hobart and its surrounds. It is also a platform offering dramatic views of the vast south-western wilderness. The drive from the CBD takes about 30 minutes, but be prepared for the weather. Snow sometimes falls in summer.

Some 45% of the state's 26,000 square miles is set aside as reserves, national parks and World Heritage areas. The sky is pollution-free; the air is reckoned to be the cleanest and freshest in the world. The first thing most Hobartians do when returning to Hobart airport after travelling interstate or overseas is to take a deep breath and announce how happy they are to be home.

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One of the city's showpieces is Blundstone Arena, formerly Bellerive Oval. It is the venue for three World Cup games - Zimbabwe v Ireland, Scotland v Sri Lanka, and Australia v Scotland.

Less than 30 years ago, it was a dusty suburban ground. Today it is one of the world's finest boutique stadiums, accommodating 20,000 spectators in a beautiful riverside setting on the city's eastern shore.

Its transformation was triggered by the cricket's administrators' decision in 1987-88 to transfer from the TCA (Tasmanian Cricket Association) ground on the Queens Domain, which had been its headquarters for more than 100 years. The ground is on a hill on the outskirts of the CBD and was notorious for chilly winds blasting down from the nearby Mt Wellington. Bails were often blown off and, during one game, a sightscreen was toppled.

Less than 30 years ago, Blundstone Arena was a dusty suburban ground. Today it is one of the world's finest boutique stadiums, accommodating 20,000 spectators in a beautiful riverside setting on the city's eastern shore

Cricket has a long and quirky history in Hobart. One of the earliest references to it is contained in the 1813 diary by a colonial clergyman, who mentioned he had seen gentlemen playing the game. It is thought that some early games were played in June and July, thus matching the English seasons. Presumably the players soon woke up to the fact that mid-winter in Hobart was a far cry from a glorious summer day at Lord's.

It was not until 1977 that Tasmania was admitted to the nationwide Sheffield Shield competition. Until then, the state's first-class cricket options had been a few annual matches against some of the other states, and an occasional game against touring international teams. A bid to gain admission to the Shield competition in 1964 was rejected. The message became clear: cricket in Tasmania had been held back by regional rivalries on the island. At times, representative selections were split between the south (Hobart), north (Launceston) and north-west. Improved administration and a growing realisation of the need for change gradually overcame that obstacle.

In 1969, Tasmania was included in the inaugural national one-day competition and, three years later, Lancashire allrounder Jack Simmons was recruited as captain. His tough and inspiring leadership shaped the emergence of Tasmania on the national stage. Between 1974 and 1979, Simmons lifted his players to two semi-finals and two finals, culminating in victory in 1978-79. Along the way, he identified a brilliant young talent in Launceston: David Boon. The emergence of the gritty and gifted opening batsman in the early 1980s put the state on the international map. A statue at Blundstone Arena honours the great man who scored a century against New Zealand at the venue in 1993.

Simmons was followed by another experienced English county cricketer, Brian Davison, formerly of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), who continued to develop the professional approach. In more recent times, Launceston has also produced Ricky Ponting, Australia's best batsman of the modern era and a fierce competitor. Add to that list George Bailey, the current state captain. The impact of the performances and leadership by those three players cannot be over-estimated.

The recruitment of the likes of Dennis Lillee, Richard Hadlee, Shane Watson and Michael Holding added strength to the team and glamour to the game itself. Modern cricket is now established as the premier summer sport on the island.

These days, recruiting concentrates on the other Sheffield Shield teams. Opening batsman Ed Cowan, from NSW, was starved of opportunities at home but has blossomed as a Test player in Tasmania. The traffic hasn't been one-way. Former Tasmania keeper-batsman Matthew Wade is now captain of Victoria, having played second fiddle to Tim Paine.

In recent years, Tasmanian cricket has continued to punch well above its weight, having won the Sheffield Shield three times, plus a string of national one-day competitions. And Hobart Hurricanes excelled in the 2014 Champions League, helped by the fact that numerous state players are regulars in the IPL.

Australian players have the reputation of being take-no-prisoners competitors, and Tasmanians adopt the same approach. For the administrators, the role of the Sheffield Shield competition is to develop players for the Test team. For the Tasmanian players, it's a chance to take on the best and win. They say Test matches are tough gigs. Take your place in a stand at Blundstone Arena during a Shield game and you will see where the preparation for that challenge begins.

The 2015 World Cup matches in Hobart will provide another huge boost to cricket and carry the beauty of the city to an international audience.

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