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For the first time in 20 years, New South Wales entered the season without a Waugh in their squad; they finished it with their 44th first-class title, a triumph for the self-dubbed "Baby Blues". Some had been dreading a year of rebuilding. Steve and Mark Waugh had retired, and Michael Bevan moved to Tasmania, where he was to enjoy a record-breaking season. "Not much was expected of us," said Brad Haddin, who led New South Wales to victory in the Pura Cup final, "but behind closed doors we always knew we'd have a team that would compete this year."
As Australia's summer of international dominance continued in New Zealand, fewer than 5,000 spectators turned up over three days for the domestic final - 25,000 had witnessed Victoria's emotional triumph the previous year - but those who were there saw a thriller. New South Wales had to beat Queensland, who had topped the table, to take the trophy, and did so by a single wicket when No. 11 Stuart MacGill swiped a four behind square leg. It matched the narrowest winning margin in the 23 finals, between the same sides, 20 years earlier. Queensland's Carl Rackemann had cried that day; this time Jimmy Maher and Andy Bichel did the same, while MacGill and his batting partner Nathan Bracken screamed with delight.
It was a fitting climax for two teams who had pecked at each other throughout a fiercely competitive season. From November to March, the national side collected Test wins as easily as cheap souvenirs - seven wins, plus a rain-affected draw. But as in Australian politics, where the Liberals have been as dominant at federal level as the national cricket team, the state scene was more interesting than the big picture.
Entering the tenth and final round of four-day matches, Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia could all have headed the table. Western Australia - leaders at the end of February - were the ones squeezed out. They conceded first-innings lead to Queensland, who thus took the two points they needed to go top and claim home advantage in their seventh successive final, while New South Wales joined them with their sixth win. The finalists had already fought two close contests during the tournament - Queensland had taken the season's opening fixture by two wickets, and in the return at Bankstown Oval their last pair, Nathan Hauritz and Joe Dawes, held on for 69 balls to secure a gripping draw. The final was even more tense when New South Wales slid to 161 for nine chasing 183, and Queensland would have won by a single run had their wicketkeeper, Wade Seccombe, held a catch off Bracken. "It's like someone's ripped a great big piece out of your heart," said their captain, Maher. "Anyone with any sort of a brain knows we gave it all we had, but it still feels like we let everyone down."
That conclusion, and Tasmania's historic victory in the one-day ING Cup - only their second trophy, after the 1978-79 Gillette Cup, a much briefer tournament in which they played only two games - meant there were more smiles about the ability of the domestic game to retain some public appeal. And Twenty20 cricket made a popular debut, despite initial administrative resistance. Experimental matches between Western Australia and Victoria at Perth and between Australia A and Pakistan at Adelaide were sell-outs - previously a pipedream unless the full national side was involved. Australia dived in to play the first men's Twenty20 international, in New Zealand, which they won - as they had the inaugural Test and one-day international. A domestic competition was scheduled for January 2006.
After the months of goodbyes in 2003-04, when Michael Slater, Darren Berry and the Waughs retired, Stuart Law left for England, and David Hookes met a tragic death, the replacements arrived like springtime. Dominic Thornely of New South Wales scored a stunning 261 not out against Western Australia, striking 11 sixes, one more than Hookes's domestic record of ten. Thornely and his team-mate, the impressively consistent Phil Jaques, both passed 1,000 first-class runs and averaged more than 60. They spectacularly plugged the gaps left by the Waughs and Bevan, the state's three top run-scorers with more than 20,000 between them.
South Australia offered two notable bowling talents. They finally found a quality off-spinner to fill a berth vacant since Tim May retired in 1996 to become chief executive of the Australian Cricketers' Association (a post he left in 2005 to move to the USA). Dan Cullen, a 20-year-old with an action modelled on Saqlain Mushtaq's, inspired a sense of mystery in unsuspecting batsmen. By the end of his first season, he was on Cricket Australia's contracted-player list - while Queensland off-spinner Hauritz, who had dismissed Sachin Tendulkar and V. V. S. Laxman on Test debut in November 2004, had dropped down to grade cricket.
Even more important for South Australia - and the Test side - was the continuing rise of 22-year-old Shaun Tait, the first sustainable fast-bowling prospect since Brett Lee. Tait found himself plunged into the 2005 Ashes series at Trent Bridge. It was a natural progression. Thirty wickets the previous year had earned him a call-up for the Test tour of Sri Lanka; this time, he claimed 65 at 20 runs apiece, the most by any bowler in the 2004-05 Pura Cup, and two more than Clarrie Grimmett's South Australian first-class record, set 65 years earlier.
Another record from 1939-40, when Grimmett's friend and fellow legspinner Bill O'Reilly took 52 Sheffield Shield wickets for New South Wales, was wiped out when MacGill pocketed 54 Pura victims (and 70 in all firstclass cricket). Bichel got 60, surpassing Craig McDermott's Queensland record of 54 Shield wickets in 1989-90, but was beaten to a place on the Ashes tour by Tait, 12 years his junior.
Meanwhile, Bevan stood head and shoulders above any other batsman, scoring 1,464 runs at 97.60 to beat the Pura/Shield record of 1,381 by Matthew Elliott the previous year. He was named Pura Cup Player of the Season. Nobody had ever matched Bevan's feat of eight centuries (including a run of five in seven innings) in the Sheffield Shield or Pura Cup, though Don Bradman did it in all first-class cricket in 1947-48.
Cricket New South Wales considered a break with tradition in 2004 when it asked both the SCG Trust and Telstra Stadium - the venue of the 2000 Olympic Games, with almost double the crowd capacity - to tender for international matches from 2005-06. Telstra Stadium appeared set to host at least some internationals, but the SCG Trust's bid, reported to be worth $A60-70m over five seasons, was accepted, and they copped the lot. Olympic Park did host its third ING Cup game, between Queensland and New South Wales, which attracted 13,751 spectators - the final at the Gabba pulled only 12,357.
Once the first-class season started, New South Wales quickly proved their worth, following up the narrow defeat by Queensland with three innings victories. Powered by the most feared attack in the competition - four bowlers each collected 40 wickets or more - they crushed Western Australia after Thornely and MacGill added 219 for the last wicket, dismissed Victoria for 91, and demolished South Australia for 29 inside 15 overs, with Bracken claiming a barely believable seven for four.
While Jaques, the first New South Wales batsman to score two doublecenturies in a season since Bob Simpson, and Thornely were starring at the top of the batting order, Haddin was prepared to chip in on most occasions. During January, it seemed he was playing every day: he went from Australia A to the senior one-day side and back to New South Wales, leading them for most of the season in Simon Katich's absence. Haddin played some crucial innings - none more important than in the final - and grew into the captaincy. He also batted attractively in the ING Cup, though New South Wales's fourday form meant little there and they finished last.
For the second season running, Queensland ended their summer in tears, with two finals and no trophies. They topped the four-day and one-day tables, but were sensationally denied by New South Wales in the Pura Cup, and outplayed by Tasmania in the ING final. International call-ups meant James Hopes, named the ING Cup's player of the season, and Andrew Symonds missed that match, while Shane Watson, who had done well on his return to his native Queensland from Tasmania, had a side injury. Maher tried to haul his young side through with 104, but the final highlighted the problem that they were a team of contributors, without a star.
Maher led the run-scoring with 841 at 40; the biggest disappointment was Martin Love, who collected only 155 in 14 innings before his century in the Pura Cup final. Bichel led the bowling, well supported by Dawes's 46 wickets, but options and back-up remained a problem, especially with the decline of Hauritz, whose six wickets cost 96 each.
Western Australia relied on two Queenslanders, Ben Edmondson and Steve Magoffin, to carry their fast bowling. Unable to break through at home, the pair were highly successful in their new state, though they just missed out on the Pura Cup final. Overall, however, the attack lacked penetration. They could have wished for more than four first-class games out of Brad Hogg, who contributed 16 wickets between international appearances. The batting was more solid, however: Mike Hussey, Murray Goodwin and Marcus North all passed 800 runs, and Adam Voges celebrated the fastest-ever century in the one-day competition - from 62 balls - against New South Wales. In the Pura Cup, there were some impressive fourth-innings chases: 397 to beat Tasmania, 454 in a losing cause against South Australia. But 441 in 48 overs to beat Queensland in their last match and reach the final was too much to ask.
After Victoria's 13-year wait for the title, their failure to defend it was a let-down, and the repercussions of finishing fourth continued well into the close season. Matthew Elliott, a pillar as opening batsman since 1993, decided to leave, though he had to go to a Cricket Australia tribunal in May 2005 to get permission to move to South Australia to take up a player-coach role. He said he needed new challenges after a disappointing year by his standards: 585 runs at 30. Mathew Inness, a left-arm bowler struggling to hold his place, headed for Western Australia. Brad Hodge and Jon Moss were courted by New South Wales but eventually decided to stay, as did Ian Harvey.
A mid-season streak of 588 in five innings propelled Hodge into the Test squads for the New Zealand and England tours, but consistency was Victoria's main concern. Jason Arnberger collected three hundreds; however David Hussey, who was eventually dropped, and Moss failed to match the heights of the previous year. An up-and-down summer improved a little when they won after following on against Queensland, thanks to centuries from Arnberger and their 21-year-old captain, Cameron White. It was White's maiden first-class hundred, but he needed to improve his leg-spin, which attracted only 19 wickets at 39. Mick Lewis was Victoria's leading bowler: 38 victims earned him a Cricket Australia contract.
Tait and Cullen stood above South Australian cricket like the Adelaide Oval floodlights. Underneath was a batting line-up that failed to shine until March. South Australia lost seven times, and on six of those occasions they failed to pass 200 in the first innings, the nadir being the 29 all out at Sydney. A young batting order desperately missed Darren Lehmann, who played two Pura games while fighting for his international career. But their batting ills showed late signs of improvement: they ended a season of misery with two outright wins and leapfrogged Tasmania to avoid last place. By then, they were so cheerful that the coaching staff, led by Wayne Phillips, were reappointed. The all-rounder Mick Miller retired to start a charterfishing business in Darwin.
Michael Bevan's move to Tasmania drew comparisons with Don Bradman's switch to South Australia. His average was Bradmanesque too. But without regular assistants for him, Tasmania won only one first-class match and lost eight, including the last five, to finish bottom. In the ING Cup, however, Bevan's 519 runs at 86.50 led them to their first trophy in 26 years. They finished behind Queensland in the group phase, but in the final they were as calculating as any Bevan run-chasing innings. Damien Wright completed an exceptional season as an all-rounder, combining 39 first-class wickets and 534 runs. Tasmania also won the Benaud Spirit of Cricket Award for player conduct. But it was the one-day triumph that made their year, and it was fitting that Bevan, their man of the season, was at the wicket, 47 not out, as they sealed the win. Despite a summer of changes, he was a link between Australian cricket's past triumphs and uncertain future.