Marsh Sheffield Shield 2020-21
Ferguson turns to lifelong mentor for final lap
With a legend of South Australian cricket as counsel, Callum Ferguson reveals why he's decided to call time on his first-class career
In the closing phase of what had proved a forgettable match in an otherwise memorable career, Callum Ferguson called on the mate and mentor who has accompanied him for much of his 20-year cricket journey for one final trip.
Ferguson was aged just 16 when he earned his first South Australia contract, and even though he idolised David Boon as a boy in his Adelaide backyard and received news of his rookie listing from then Redbacks coach Greg Chappell, his inspiration quickly became ex-Test batter Greg Blewett.
"I remember Ferg coming into the squad as a youngster, and he hung around Blewy like a bad smell," current West End Redbacks coach Jason Gillespie recalled of Ferguson's arrival in the SA squad of which Gillespie and Blewett were the star turns.
"Blewy was a hero of his, and Blewy took him under his wing."
And so it was to Blewett, now an assistant coach to Gillespie at SA, that Ferguson turned last Monday evening when he found himself questioning his capability and commitment to playing at first-class level.
Ferguson had been a spectator in his team's eventual draw against Victoria, scoring a pair of ducks and turfing the first legitimate chance SA created for 114 soul-destroying overs when a straightforward slips catch tumbled from his normally assured hands.
The 11 hours SA spent in the field as Victoria piled on 3(dec)-564 came barely a week after they had endured 10-and-a-half hours of torment from Tasmania's batters, and the 35-year-old understandably felt the enthusiasm he held prior to beginning his 16th Shield leaching out of him.
So as the Redbacks' ninth-wicket pair Liam Scott and Daniel Worrall grimly held out for half an hour to secure a draw, and Blewett formulated plans to players and staff to meet for a post-game drink and debrief, Ferguson sought out his friend for some urgent soul-searching.
And by the time the pair had walked half a dozen laps of Glenelg Oval in the gentle early spring sunshine, it had become similarly clear this was the point their paths would diverge.
"I was talking to Blewy on those laps … just about what had been going through my head in the two games that I've played, when we've spent a lot of time in the field," Ferguson said today in explaining his rationale for retiring from first-class cricket before the season's midway point.
"It's not uncommon for guys when they've been fielding for long periods of time to start thinking about what they could be doing.
"But some of those feelings were getting stronger than I'd been used to, and stronger than I'd been comfortable with and I wanted to talk through it with a close mate and someone I trust.
"Blewy certainly was very supportive in making sure I wasn't making a decision based on having a bad game.
"Just to be able to talk it through and get a lot of stuff off my chest, it certainly made a big difference and helped me get on to the right path to make a sound decision, one way or the other.
"It was either going all-in, as my dad (Bill) said the other night, or make a call right now to step away and give someone else an opportunity to try and bring home a Shield for us."
Those who know Ferguson, who Gillespie today praised for his passion for SA cricket and the "team-first" mantra he's lived since first representing the Redbacks in 2002-03, aren't surprised he selflessly took the second option.
Speaking to cricket.com.au prior to the Shield season, Ferguson claimed his unsated hunger for runs and the lure of landing SA the Shield triumph that had eluded him throughout his playing tenure – in which the Redbacks reached two finals – provided strong motivation to play on.
He also believed that the national selectors' preparedness to re-engage players aged 30 and above – the likes of Adam Voges and incumbent skipper Tim Paine in recent years – meant if he could produce another 1000-runs summer, he might still add to his solitary Test appearance.
But his failure to make the starting XI for SA's opening Shield match of the season against SA hit him harder than he expected, and his returns of 29, 40, 0 and 0 on being recalled led him on to the path of introspection around Glenelg Oval.
"Getting left out at the start of the summer took a bit of the wind out of my sails," Ferguson told a media conference today, flanked by Gillespie and newly installed selection chair James Pyke.
"I was struggling with the idea that I wasn't in our best top five.
"I've gone into every innings believing I'm going to make a hundred in the next one, and unfortunately I haven't done that consistently enough to be able to say 'no, that's my spot'.
"I feel like I've got punches to throw, and I feel like I'm going to make runs every time I go to the crease.
"But by my own standards I haven't been consistent enough and I believe there are other players in this squad who can come in, have an impact and be more consistent than I've been.
"At my age, I don't believe I'm the one that's going to take us through the second half of this season."
Politely articulate and engagingly thoughtful, Ferguson has won admirers from teammates and supporters beyond fiercely parochial South Australia, especially at Worcestershire where he spent several seasons and in the KFC BBL where he will continue to captain Sydney Thunder.
That also explains why even the most flint-hearted can empathise with his international cricket story, which is decidedly more hard-luck than heroic.
Installed in the middle-order of a dominant Australia men's ODI outfit a decade ago, at a time when Ferguson himself admits many thought Victoria's Brad Hodge deserved elevation, he was crucial to the team reaching the final of the 2009 ICC Champions Trophy tournament in South Africa.
But he sustained a serious knee injury in Australia's final victory, and while he treasures the memory of limping on to the victory dais clad in his winner's white jacket ("which looks kind of ridiculous") he rues the year or rehabilitation that cruelled his hopes of regular representation.
Another major knee injury six years later, a month after posting a career-high 213 in a Shield match in Hobart, meant he watched SA's first home Shield final in a decade from the sidelines and his absence was cited as a pivotal factor in an inexperienced Redbacks' defeat to Victoria in the play-off.
The following summer he was rewarded with Test selection in an Australia team reeling from four consecutive defeats, but was run out for three via a direct hit from South Africa's substitute fielder, who was also their reserve wicketkeeper.
That ensuing fifth-straight Test loss led selectors to dramatically revamp the national team, and Ferguson was culled along with Voges and Joe Burns for the call-up of uncapped trio Matthew Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson.
In breaking the news of his first-class retirement to his Redbacks teammates at Adelaide Oval this morning, Ferguson held his original and current SA caps as he spoke of what it had meant to him to represent his state in 123 Shield games, just four fewer than SA's most-capped player, Peter Sleep.
Asked later if he had been tempted to push on and try and overtake Sleep's benchmark, Ferguson said: "I wouldn't be true to myself if I was playing for that.
"I'm too passionate about this … I just wanted us to win one (a Shield)."
But he chose not to share with his teammates thoughts on receiving that solitary Test cap – "once they give you one of these they can't take it away from you" – even though he doesn't subscribe to the view he's been visited by more than his share of ill-luck.
"There's a lot of fantastic cricketers around the world that haven't had the chance to play for their country, and the Baggy Green has been one of the hardest traditionally to get your hands on," Ferguson said today.
"I got my hands on one – I didn't take my chance unfortunately, but it is something I'm enormously proud of.
"Throughout a career that's lasted as long as mine, you're going to get the wrong end of the stick and you're going to get the right end of it sometimes.
"I wouldn't sit here and say I got the raw end of the stick.
"I certainly believe that the game will hit you sometimes, and the game will lift you sometimes.
"There's plenty of guys that had a rougher time of it with selection than I did."
Ferguson will play his final Shield match at Glenelg Oval, against Queensland starting on Sunday, 16 years after making his debut against Victoria alongside Blewett while Gillespie was spearheading Australia's historic Test series triumph in India.
But it's even longer since the 12-year-old Ferguson was sat on the Adelaide Oval's famous hill, imbibing free cola as part of the Shield's then 'dollar-day' promotion, and inspired by the sight of Gillespie tearing into bowl with Redbacks' current high performance boss Tim Nielsen behind the stumps.
"That's probably where the dream began, if not in the backyard pretending I was David Boon," Ferguson said today, with wife Rhiannon and four-month-old daughter Layla looking on.
"I can't really put into words, and I've struggled over the last few days, what it's meant to play for South Australia.
"I've made a lot of great mates, lifelong friends and brothers, so I couldn't be happier with my lot."