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Time for a format change

Peter English questions the format of a tournament final that encouraged Queensland to bat on and on

Peter English
Peter English

Jimmy Maher and Andy Bichel celebrate the victory in style © Getty Images
As a Queenslander, winning the Sheffield Shield and subsequent Pura Cup is the best way to prepare for winter. The first success in 1994-95 was so satisfyingly emotional that the party lasted for months from the dazed balcony scene on The Cricketers' Club to a lounge room where a bed-ridden youth ignored the pain of a broken shoulder to punch the air. Touching the blue felt of the Shield and seeing the "Queensland will never win this" line as it completed a state-wide victory lap was cathartic, and I'll always smile when I remember the pleasurable night it spent in our Sunshine Coast home.
The Pura Cup, the sponsored replacement of Lord Sheffield's donation that started in 1999-2000 with a "milk" supplement in the title, is shinier but it lost some gleam this week as Queensland defeated Victoria by reaching 6 for 900, the 11th highest total in first-class history. Scores like this in the Ranji Trophy or Test matches - England taking 903 at The Oval in 1938 with Australia two batsmen short; Sri Lanka feathering records in their 957 against India in 1997-98 as Sanath Jayasuriya collected 340 - are mocked as ridiculous. Queensland's previous highest score of 687 was made 75 years ago and beating it in a final was a worthy goal. Even declaring shortly after passing 710 - the score Victoria set over three days when they won the Cup in 2003-04 - would have settled the tit-for-tat battle until next time and given the home team a lead of almost 400.
Jimmy Maher, the Bulls captain, did not want merely to ride the Bushrangers out of town, so he galloped them for 242 overs and finally settled on an advantage of 556. In Maher's defence, he was missing the bowler Ashley Noffke and Shane Watson had cramps, but these sorts of numbers helped end the game's Golden Age in the early stages of the last century.
Queensland's players were buoyant, Maher describing watching the scoreboard rise through the 700s and 800s as "amazing" and "phenomenal". Allan Border, who scored 98 in the state's original triumph, was disappointed they didn't go for 1000.
"It's so rare to see that kind of score," Border said on Fox Sports. "He could have batted on to make it even more farcical. He's done exactly the right thing." The result of a Baggy Green poll asking if making 900 was against the spirit of the game supported Maher's decision. Almost 75% - more than 7000 people - voted no and they were right. Maher hasn't broken any rules and won his side the game by doing what the opposition wanted least. The contest became a novelty, but the situation is not Maher's problem and he deserves to enjoy his first trophy as Queensland's captain and a week of XXXX bubble baths. "Anyone who's had a go at us is uneducated," he told AAP after the victory. "We set out to play this game like a normal Pura Cup match. The only difference was we got 900 in 240 overs."
It's a big difference and the final's format needs serious examination to avoid one-sided deciders as the home side exploits their advantage of needing only to draw to lift the trophy. Hosting the decider is a fine reward for the leader of the table after the ten group games, but giving them the right not to lose and still win is a considerable imbalance. Maher said they would "bat and bat and bat" and they did. It's unlikely the same approach would have been taken - no matter what Maher says - if they didn't have the safety blanket of the draw.
The advantage, of course, is not a waterproof way of ensuring a victory and New South Wales, who secured a thrilling, tear-jerking, one-wicket win at the Gabba last season, have upset Queensland on their last two visits to Brisbane for the decider. A first-past-the-post winner is not the Australian way, although it works in the County Championship and a lot of things have been copied from England lately.
Limiting first innings to 150 overs or allowing the leader after the preliminary rounds to choose whether they host the game or give up their drawing rights seems too unpredictable and unworkable. Playing the game to a finish is an option with misty-eyed comparisons to timeless Tests. It's impossible to think of a game going for more than six days, which the current format allows if there are serious weather interruptions, and it would retain pressure throughout instead of allowing only a home win or a draw over the closing stages of a big-innings affair.
Since the first effort in 1982-83 there have been some fabulous finals and some tedious ones in a contest designed as the domestic game's showpiece. If both teams start from the same spot it means one doesn't have to run uphill and adds a sense of fairness to the contest. It also results in the best team always winning - not just the one who bats for the longest. Queenslanders can toast their side in admiration and enjoy the off-season, but it's time to revise the system.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo