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David Frith and Philip Bailey
It has been called the toughest domestic cricket competition in the world, a claim that defies serious argument even nowadays, when current Test players appear only rarely. You have to look at the players on the fringe of the Australian side who move into the English game, and compare the way they prosper with the struggles of some of the West Indians. Sheffield Shield runs and wickets have often been harder to secure than certain Test match runs and wickets. Australians who prosper in the Shield are clearly made of the right stuff.
All along, Shield matches have demanded penetrative bowling. They have been played over four days since 1930-31 (originally, they were timeless). They are usually played on well-prepared pitches, nearly always on Test grounds; and they involve batsmen who get comparatively few innings (compared to their English county counterparts, who constantly fight fatigue and staleness) and will therefore not easily be shifted. The outstanding feats of the past fifty years make dazzling reading, even compared to the golden batting age pre-war when Bradman and co. beat the life out of cricket balls.
David Hookes towers from the peaceful Adelaide Oval with the fastest century (34 balls), a triple-century in a stand of 462 (with Wayne Phillips) and four centuries in two matches within 11 days. The Waugh brothers beat that stand by putting on 464 for New South Wales, finishing extraordinarily fresh as their captain declared. Barry Richards scored 356 for South Australia against a Western Australia attack that included Lillee, McKenzie and Lock, after missing the first ball of the day and causing Rod Marsh to stage-whisper, "I thought this bloke was supposed to be able to play a bit?"
But in many ways the stars of the Shield have been those who have rarely or never made it into the Test team. Indeed, there have been batsmen as good as Ray Flockton, who emerged from 12th man duty with the New South Wales team of 1959-60 to make an unbeaten 264 against South Australia. There was Les Favell, who captained South Australia with the same panache that Stuart Surridge brought to leading Surrey. And there are modern players like the Queenslander Trevor Barsby and the South Australian captain Jamie Siddons, who would walk into most national teams.
Philip Bailey's survey of the first fifty seasons since the war, 1946-47 to 1995-96, shows that New South Wales are the champions of the post-war Sheffield Shield. But this does not tell the whole story. New South Wales dominated the first two decades after the war, when Keith Miller led his adopted state like some Douglas Fairbanks in flannels, and began a run of nine successive Shields from 1953-54 to 1961-62.
New South Wales won almost half their matches (71 out of 146) in those first twenty years, but since the mid-1960s Western Australia have been the dominant team in the Shield. They were not even in the competition until 1947-48 when they took part on a restricted basis, won two of their first four matches and took the Shield at their first attempt.
Before the war the combination of tyrannical distance and an absence of star players meant the West did not take part in the Shield. And after their initial triumph, they often struggled until Tony Lock's drive and two generations of great players turned them into the most feared team in the country. Though Western Australia is more than ten times the size of Britain, most of the players come from the small area round Perth, comparable to Barbados as a fertile patch of cricketing talent.
There is a special fighting spirit in the West that goes beyond cricket. But perhaps it was more significant that the Perth pitch has long been so fast it has intimidated many players from the eastern states.
Victoria, the most traditionally minded of states, have shunned imports and succeeded patchily. South Australia - the state that had Garry Sobers as well as Ian Chappell - have made major contributions to the history of the Shield, and won it seven times in the fifty years, without ever retaining it.
Queensland tried year after year to buy the extra talent that would win them the Shield, until weight of expectation became their greatest problem. Finally, under Stuart Law's captaincy, they broke through in 1994-95, 68 years after their first attempt. Tasmania, since they joined in 1977-78, have been the Durham of this competition. They had a heady few seasons under Jack Simmons's leadership and Queensland's success has encouraged them. But the axiom that one star will never be enough holds true, especially when that star - David Boon - has usually been unavailable.
Despite all the quality, and the intense competitiveness of the play, the crowds are seldom much more than enough to cover the gatemen's wages, though the institution of the final from 1982-83 has created an upturn in interest. As elsewhere, the revenue from one-day cricket has covered the costs of staging the domestic first-class competition. Only the most fervent limited-overs fan would begrudge this. It is the very making of the Test team, which has hardly ever been out of the top three in the world. - David Frith
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