Ricky Ponting as imperious as ever in the last days of his first class career.
Sometime soon (as I write) the Sheffield Shield for 2019/20 gets underway. That beautiful, storied, meandering competition that will finish sometime in late March – no one knows exactly where.
There’s no fanfare to open the season beyond the first sight of the umpires in their black trousers and white broad-brimmed hats entering the field of play through the players’ gate. The venue of the final might not be known until the last ball of the season. The football codes couldn’t cope with such ambiguity and fluidity of scheduling.
The migration begins
The start of any cricket season is more like a flock of birds getting ready for a long flight of migration. At an undefined given moment, the long journey begins.
But for all the low key, undersold elements, the emotional driver of Shield cricket is not just the quality of play and its fundamental place below the peak of cricket’s great pyramid. It’s also about the cross section of players who compete in it.
In my book Around the Grounds I reflect on nearly twenty years covering this labyrinth–style competition. It’s ‘the funny game that is often drawn but seldom tied, where you can lead but are never winning, where players have a second innings chance for redemption and sometimes pray for rain. Everything is part of a bigger picture’.
If you’re chosen to play Shield cricket you’re one of probably less than a hundred to do so in a given season. You’ve really made it as a player but success comes in degrees. And the fame and good fortune often aren’t distributed fairly.
When I first covered Shield cricket for ABC Grandstand in 1997/98, I was despatched to the SCG for four days to prepare updates, news reports, interviews and live commentary. The game involved New South Wales (my home state) captained by then Test skipper Mark Taylor and Tasmania (my soon to be adopted state), lead by David Boon, of whom I wrote:
‘His international career was over but he was seeing out his playing days in a distinguished manner, building and guiding a team of talented locals and eclectic interstate imports, the hallmarks of many a successful Tasmanian team. In captaincy mode Boonie was gruff and a bit shy, but he carried the authority of a four star general. When he spoke which wasn’t often, his words hardly registered with any volume, but the background of his successful international career and the aura that went with that permeated his subordinates’.
A classy leader
On the first day of that game Mark Taylor actually arrived around lunchtime, after leading Australia in a gruelling five-day draw against South Africa in Adelaide the previous evening. A classy example from a classy leader.
The two teams fought it out hard in the February heat but Tasmania was on a winning run, lead to victory by a player whose name doesn’t appear in too many anthology histories of Australian cricket, a bald-headed quick from Hobart via Warragul in Victoria named Mark William Ridgeway.
‘On the final day of the game, fuelled by cigarettes in the lunch and tea breaks, and with legs pumping, arms flailing and his bald pallet shimmering in the hot February sun, Ridgeway ripped through the thoroughbred New South Wales batting line up with figures of 6 for 50 to become an unlikely SCG hero. Over many years I’d see players like this enjoy peak career performances, only to see them fade. It was easy to detect from the commentary box, but much harder to understand from the players point of view.’
Another long hot summer
As the song says ‘a long hot summer soon passes by’ and a Shield career might only last a game or two. Enjoy all of it while it lasts, the great and dull games, superstar and journeymen players. Great stadiums and suburban out grounds. It’ll be Shield Final day before we know it.