My first taste of Tasmanian cricket after moving from Sydney in September 1982 was a Sunday centre-wicket practice session for the state squad in Launceston. A centre-wicket hit sounded promising, but the venue turned out to be a modest suburban ground and the wicket a concrete pitch with a synthetic surface. The day was not the balmy Sydney weather I'd left but a typically chilly, blustery Tasmanian spring. Most players talked of finishing early and getting indoors to watch the Aussie Rules final telecast from Melbourne.
After similar training sessions in Devonport on the north-west coast and down south in Hobart, I was chosen in the team for the state's first Sheffield Shield match as a full-time participant (for their first five seasons, they played five matches rather than ten). I was told to go to the Tasmanian Cricket Association's office in the centre of Hobart to pick up my gear. No contract to sign, just some training and travel clothes, a helmet, match jumpers and the state's baggy green cap. When I arrived, the wife of the association's secretary - chief executive in today's terms - was still sewing the crest on my long-sleeve jumper. "Only in Tassie," I thought.
Back then, Hobart's first-class venue was the TCA ground atop the hill that overlooks the central business district. To the south-west looms Mount Wellington, sometimes covered in snow only weeks before the first match of the season. The ground's facilities were ancient. The main grandstand was a rickety timber structure full of wonderful old cricket photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The ground in Launceston was similar.
The facilities at Devonport Oval were newer but basic, although in the early 1980s its pitch was second only to the WACA in pace and bounce. These rustic grounds were a far cry from the SCG.
The amateur, provincial nature of the set-up in Tasmania 25 years ago was a reflection of its remoteness from the mainland. This was a small island state with fewer than half a million people, and like all islands it was riven by bitter rivalries. The North and North-West hated each other. The only thing they had in common was their disgust for the South. These rivalries were an undercurrent that surfaced whenever a grievance was felt or an excuse needed. It meant that cricket's meagre resources had to be shared three ways, so only minimal development was possible at the three firstclass venues. As a result, none was good enough.
When I played for Tassie, we'd start each season by going from those chilly weekend practice sessions to the opening match in Brisbane or Perth. We'd go from damp, flat, slow pitches to the Gabba or the WACA, facing Thomson and Rackemann, or Lillee and Alderman. During the season we only got together as a team at matches. The other Shield sides practised together at least twice a week - not only the first eleven but the squad, the best 30 or so players in the state. And they could call on any number of coaches, usually former Test players. The well of knowledge was deep and readily available. Not so in Tassie, where mostly we winged it on our own. The state produced talented players - Tony Benneworth, Roger Woolley, Phil Blizzard, Stuart Saunders, Greg Campbell. But after a Shield game in the 1980s we'd return to our home towns and practise with our clubs. Club cricket wasn't strong, so the drop from facing Lillee in Perth or bowling to Greg Chappell in Brisbane was massive.
To assist their development, Tasmania had a tradition of bringing in professional players - "imports" as the locals called them. The most notable was Lancashire's Jack Simmons, a key figure in the years leading to full Shield status. In 1982-83, the first summer Tasmania played a full season, we were allowed two imports - Michael Holding and Roland Butcher. Leicestershire's Brian Davison had played for the state previously, and when he returned was considered a local. In later years, Neil Williams, Patrick Patterson, Winston Davis and Richard Ellison were brought in alongside many "mainland" Australians.
While these players added depth, there was always the sense that Tasmania were second-class. We were paid that way too. The small Tasmanian business community could not provide the generous sponsorship enjoyed by the other states. Cricketers like the comfort of having excuses at hand, and in those days we were well supplied. The accepted wisdom is that Tasmania struggled in the 1980s. Yet in 1982-83 we came fourth in a six-team competition, and the following season a creditable third. A slump followed when Peter Faulkner
(now chairman of selectors) went on rebel tours to South Africa, Davison withdrew over a contractual dispute, and David Boon was away with the Test team. These were heavy losses in a system with little depth. The structure needed changing, and the agent was Denis Rogers, the Hobart administrator whose vision changed Bellerive Oval from a club ground to a Test venue and who made his home town the centre of state cricket. He later served as chairman of the ACB.
The culmination of that long process of reform came in 2006-07 when Tasmania won their first Sheffield Shield (or Pura Cup, as it is known now). Tasmania still have a few interstate imports, but so do every team. The best thing about this side is that most of the players are young, home-grown and very talented. They don't have to live in Hobart to enjoy the support of a state contract, but they all do, because that's where the coaches and facilities are - and, more importantly, where their team-mates are. That's why this side has so much spirit. And their coach is Tasmanian-born: Tim Coyle, of Launceston, who has brought genuine passion to the job. This side has developed from the teams of the previous decade that performed well but fell three times at the last hurdle - the Shield final - in 1993-94, 1997-98 and 2001-02. Perhaps the crucial difference was the strikepower provided by fast bowler Ben Hilfenhaus. Strong and fit, Hilfenhaus has that rare ability to bowl late outswingers at good pace. Tasmania are preparing already for his absence on international duty.
It has taken 25 years since that first full-time Sheffield Shield team travelled to the "big smoke" of Sydney for their opening match (which we won by seven wickets) for Tasmania to win the best domestic competition in the world. It's been a long journey, but Tassie's time has come and Australian cricket will be the better for it.