SA skipper sets blueprint for possible Sangha switch

Nathan McSweeney reflects on 'the best thing' he has ever done, after a change of scenery and set-up delivered a significant shift in fortunes

Newly minted South Australia skipper Nathan McSweeney believes the blossoming of his career since shifting to Adelaide might serve as a similarly restorative blueprint for his former Australia under-19 World Cup captain, Jason Sangha.

It is understood Sangha is looking to leave NSW after seven seasons with the Blues to seek further opportunities interstate, and that he toured SA's program and facilities at Adelaide Oval earlier this month.

While neither state has released their men's contract lists for 2024-25, the 24-year-old (who has not pulled on an NSW cap since last November) looms as an attractive addition to an SA top-order that – with the notable exception of McSweeney – regularly misfired last summer.

And if the elegant right-hander needs evidence as to how a change of scenery and set-up can deliver a shift in fortunes, he need only consult his former national under-19s teammate who made the move to Adelaide having failed to secure a spot in his native Queensland and has not looked back.

"It's been the best thing I've ever done," McSweeney told of his shift south in 2021 after playing five first-class matches for the Bulls in which he averaged just 14 with the bat.

"And there's several other guys in our SA team at the moment who have done similar things.

"He (Sangha) has proven he can do it, he just needs to continue to get better and work out that consistency.

"He's a quality player, he has been since he was 18 or even earlier.

"So to have someone of that calibre and his talent, hopefully we can give him that same opportunity that South Australia gave me to play consistently and, if we were to get him, we see the best of him."

Adelaide already holds fond memories for Sangha, who peeled off his highest Shield score (142) against SA at Karen Rolton Oval in 2022 in his maiden outing as NSW captain.

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But that game at the close of the 2021-22 season also proved a watershed for McSweeney who had failed to establish himself in the SA line-up until he produced an unbeaten 99 in more than four hours on the final day to steer his team to their first Shield win in more than two years.

It was the innings that convinced McSweeney, who had seemed destined for a bountiful senior career after leading Queensland to a breakthrough national under-17 title as well as captaincy stints with the state's under-19 and second XI outfits, he could make it in first-class company.

"After my stint in Queensland I thought 'am I not quite doing the right things, or am I just not good enough?'," the 25-year-old said.

"But with batting in particular, you feel like you need one score to prove yourself and I was lucky enough to do that in the last game of my first year in Adelaide where I scored 99.

"After that moment, I felt like it was a relief to know my game was up to it, and I just needed to find it a bit more consistently.

"You definitely question whether you're doing the right things and whether your technique is good enough but hopefully now I've found a formula that works for me, and I can tap into it fairly regularly."

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Finishing 2023-24 as SA's leading runs scorer in both Marsh Sheffield Shield (762 at 40.94 with three centuries) and Marsh One Day Cup (307 at 51.16 with four 50s) competitions, McSweeney has seemingly found the consistency formula he so keenly sought.

But in addition to SA's batting coach Stephen Stubbings with whom he has worked closely over recent years, McSweeney revealed he regularly picks the brain of former Queensland teammate and Australia Test number three Marnus Labuschagne.

Like Labuschagne, McSweeney is a self-confessed 'cricket nuffie' who spends much of his spare time watching and analysing the game as he constantly strives for improvement.

He remains hopeful that same single-minded drive that carried Labuschagne to the top of the world's Test batter rankings will also help him realise his ambition to represent Australia, a dream that seems realistic given his role as skipper in Australia A, Prime Minister's XI and Brisbane Heat's BBL title-winning teams over the past year.

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"It's our job at the end of the day so I think you'd be silly not to dive as deep as you can into the game," McSweeney said.

"I love learning more about my game and how I can continue to get better and grow, and I feel like a lot of the very good players that I look up to – like Marnus and Steve Smith – they have that real hunger to learn about the game and to keep getting better.

"So I'm trying my best to hopefully one day reach their level.

"It's just understanding my game, what works and what preparation looks like for me, and I think that's become more consistent over the last couple of years.

"It took a lot of time for me to get success in first-class cricket, so I'm just doubling-down on that and backing it in."

Having led an under-performing SA batting line-up through a disappointing summer, McSweeney will take over the on-field leadership from Jake Lehmann who had been appointed to the captaincy given previous skipper Travis Head's extended absences on international duty.

It represents a stiff challenge given SA have landed just one men's trophy (a one-day cup in 2011-12) in both first-class and 50-over formats across the past 28 summers, and finished no higher than fourth in the Shield competition over the last seven seasons.

But in addition to joining a select group of full-time SA Shield skippers that includes Sir Donald Bradman, Ian Chappell, David Hookes, Darren Lehmann and Head, he becomes just the fourth to be appointed to the office at age 25 or younger.

And the others in that exclusive cohort – Clem Hill, Graham Manou and Head – all went on to wear the Baggy Green Cap.

McSweeney recent representative record indicates he's on the national selectors' radar as much for his leadership skills as for his increasingly productive batting and occasional off-spin, and he cites several characteristics he believes help lend himself to captaincy.

"Being a pretty deep thinker about the game, and tactically thinking about it a fair bit," he said when asked what traits he'll bring to his new role having already landed a BBL crown as skipper.

"And over the years I'd like to think I've got just a bit calmer to be able to make tough decisions in quick time, which sometimes the game dictates.

"Trying to be as level-headed as possible and making sure that in my own game I tick all the boxes, prepare really well and try and encourage the other boys to do the same."

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The fact SA announced the popular allrounder nicknamed 'Buddha' (an epithet purportedly coined by a former schoolteacher in reference to McSweeney's cherubic appearance) as captain six months out from the start of next season suggests a need to instil stability in a program undergoing vast change.

In recent months, long-serving high-performance boss (and former Australia men's team coach) Tim Nielsen as well as favourite SA son installed as coach, Jason Gillespie, have parted ways with the SACA whose global search for replacements is ongoing.

McSweeney believes the timing of his appointment helped ensure at least one leadership figure was known heading into the off-season, which he plans to spend largely in Adelaide working on his golf game before again picking up a bat to begin 2024-25 preparations next month.

"There's obviously a lot of moving parts going on at the SACA, so to get that set in stone gives us a bit of a platform for the players to be clear on that side of it and what's happening," he said.

"Year-on-year since I've been in Adelaide, the group's got progressively better and I think that's why this year was quite disappointing because we definitely had a team we thought could take it quite deep in both formats.

"Hopefully we can hit the ground running, continue our bowling success and the batters can help out a bit more regularly and we can be there at the end of the year.

"We've got a really good group that's played consistently together for the last couple of years."

Given his staunch Queensland pedigree which includes deep family connections to his former Brisbane Premier Cricket club Northern Suburbs, McSweeney admits he regularly cops "a few little digs here and there" from former Bulls teammates about when he plans to return 'home'.

However, despite initially struggling with Adelaide's comparative winter cold, he has now immersed himself so fully in SA culture he's developed a passion for Australian rules despite his previous parochial belief that rugby league was the country's sole football code.

That inculcation, coupled with his new responsibility as Sheffield Shield and One Day Cup captain, ensures McSweeney is not entertaining thoughts of a return north beyond his BBL stints with Brisbane Heat and occasional holidays to break the mid-winter chill.

"I'm really happy in South Australia, and that's what I say whenever comes to me with any chat around that," he said.

"I've been given a great opportunity with South Australia and now the chance to captain the side, so I'm definitely not looking to move anywhere anytime soon.

"I get to see my family for Christmas when I'm playing with the Heat, and I think that's a good mix for me at the moment.

"I'm really happy, so hopefully that equals more runs and more wins for the teams I get to play in."

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