The Queensland Bulls are familiar with targets hanging from their rumps. For the past decade they have been the stampeding team of the domestic competitions and this summer Jimmy Maher's men will run with the hope of securing a ninth consecutive berth in the domestic first-class final. It is an extraordinary modern achievement, which includes four Pura Cup trophies, although it is five wins short of New South Wales' unbroken Sheffield Shield streak in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
"We've created a juggernaut," Maher said this week, "and we're not taking our foot off the pedal." (The list includes seven appearances in the one-day tournament decider over the past 11 years, but the most recent return was an embarrassing wooden spoon.) At the squad's season launch Maher also spoke of the importance of the state's development program that began in the early 1990s. Worryingly for the other sides, Maher believes only now is the long-term production showing its full gifts.
Queensland open the season in a one-day game against Tasmania at the Gabba today with a fresh squad of young talent (the fast bowler Nathan Rimmington and the allrounder Michael Buchanan), a clutch of maturing players (the wicketkeeper Chris Hartley and James Hopes) and a circle of veterans (Martin Love, Andy Bichel, Maher and Michael Kasprowicz) among the most decorated in modern state cricket.
It is an enviable mix that is most closely matched by South Australia. Fifth two summers ago, the Redbacks led the Pura Cup for a short period last January before slipping away as the final approached. They also reached the decider of the ING Cup, which has been reborn as the Ford Ranger Cup, and the memory of the one-wicket loss to New South Wales should provide suitable drive.
Darren Lehmann is at the helm in Adelaide and he will steer Mark Cosgrove, his wildly talented protégé, alongside the enormous experience of Matthew Elliott and Greg Blewett, who must recover from a career-threatening form slump. Shaun Tait and Jason Gillespie offer a combination of shock and reliability with the ball and are capably backed up by Paul Rofe and the offspin of the nationally-contracted Dan Cullen.
Fast bowling will also be a prominent feature of Western Australia's campaign as Brett Dorey towers over his Academy team-mate Ben Edmondson and Steve Magoffin. Dependable pace disappeared for a while in the west, but this trio has regained respect for the discipline in Perth and offers visiting batsmen a demanding workout. The Warriors' batting also sparks plenty of talk in opposition meetings. Once Justin Langer, Marcus North and Chris Rogers are taken care of the bowlers must deal with the differing challenges of Shaun Marsh and Luke Ronchi.
New South Wales picked up the Western Australia wrist-spinner Beau Casson in the off-season and he is part of more regeneration in Sydney. With so many players in the national set-up, the Blues have looked to their grade competition for squad members and the untried players face a challenging start - or re-start in the batsman Ed Cowan's case. The slow bowling is strong whenever Stuart MacGill is in the side and Brad Haddin's leadership, batting and wicketkeeping offer unmatched value in both the one-day and four-day competitions.
In Tasmania the development of George Bailey, who has been promoted to vice-captain behind Dan Marsh, and Travis Birt will be monitored closely after their impressive breakthroughs in 2005-06. Ben Hilfenhaus developed from a bricklayer to an Australia A swing bowler in less than a year and is another desperate to prove himself for the second consecutive season.
The axing of Brad Hodge from the Test team with an average of 58.42 angered Victorian supporters, but his presence in the state side will sooth them as the Bushrangers begin a season of repair. In their previous appearance they were buried during Queensland's 6 for 900 declared and the innings loss was the defining moment of a season that also included victory in the Twenty20 competition. Individual disappointment followed for the captain Cameron White and Mick Lewis, who lost their Cricket Australia contracts, and the pair will again be central to Victoria's hopes.
"It's hard to pick a main rival because there are so many teams," Maher said. "There are no easy games anymore. But the rest of the states see us as the benchmark and they will try to knock the top dog off." It is a position the Bulls are comfortable with.