Shield classics, No.1 | Simon Katich: Runs and redemption
We conclude our look back at the best individual Sheffield Shield seasons of the past 30 years with Simon Katich's epic 1506-run season for NSW
1) Simon Katich (New South Wales), 2007-08
Matches: 11 | Runs: 1506 | Ave: 94.13 | 100s: 5 | HS: 306
Usman Khawaja can still hear the ball coming off that bat and reverberating around the SCG. A teammate of Simon Katich's at both New South Wales and Sydney grade club Randwick-Petersham during that 2007-08 season, Khawaja bore closer witness than perhaps anyone to the record-breaking feats of his skipper through what amounted to five months of single-minded domination.
"He was scoring runs everywhere – we'd come back to grade cricket and he'd score runs there, too," Khawaja tells cricket.com.au. "I've never seen anything like it.
"And that bat that he had. The ball pinged off that bat like I've never heard.
"He gave me a throwdown with it, and it was just like, Ping! Ping! I was like, 'Oh my god, what is this thing?'"
Of course, Katich's run spree was about more than just a bat.
Like many good stories, it begins with a slight.
The genesis of the most prolific run-scoring season in Sheffield Shield history can be traced back to a national selection meeting in 2007. It was late April, possibly the first day of May. The topic for conversation was the international future of Simon Katich, who had been out of Australia's ODI and Test sides for seven and 18 months respectively.
With Australia having just surged through another unbeaten World Cup campaign – and Matthew Hayden playing a lead role – and the onset of T20 cricket about to electroshock the 50-over format, Katich's time as opening partner to Adam Gilchrist looked consigned to the past.
Yet he had cause for optimism regarding his Test future. At 31, and having made some technical adjustments under the tutelage of Test legend and former Australia coach Bob Simpson, he felt as comfortable in his game as he ever had. An issue with the timing of his trigger movement, which had troubled him during the 2005 Ashes, had been ironed out, and he was settled in his unorthodoxy.
The numbers illustrated the point: since that landmark 2005 Ashes, Katich was averaging 74.36 in first-class cricket. And with Justin Langer having recently retired, there was an opening at the top of Australia's Test batting order for the first time in almost six years.
Yet where Katich saw hope, the selectors saw history.
"I was told that I was never going to get picked for Australia again," he tells cricket.com.au. "That came as a bit of a jolt to the system."
Instead they had turned their attention to Chris Rogers and Phil Jaques, both prolific opening batsmen who were respectively two and four years younger than Katich. The news seemed premature to Katich, particularly with Damien Martyn having also retired the previous summer, and Hayden on the far side of 35. At the time, Katich had played 23 Tests, for two hundreds and an average of 36.
Particularly in the era, it was a below-par output, but the game's annals are littered with batsmen who have blossomed beyond the age of 31-32. And with a national side about to undergo a period of generational change, drawing a line through Katich appeared a bold move.
More than 13 years after the fact, Katich can't say categorically how he received the news, though he does recall how he then began the northern summer for Derbyshire.
"I think it was the day after I got told, I went out and got 220 in a County game – so maybe it did fire me up," he tells cricket.com.au.
"At the time I didn't think it made me more determined – because I was always really determined anyway – but maybe deep down it triggered something where I thought, I've got a point to prove.
"It sort of set something off in me."
Katich went berserk in England in 2007, hammering 1,284 runs at 75.52 to maintain his outstanding record after his 2005 Test axing. As well as fueling a fire that already burned fiercely within him, he believes that conversation with selectors also had a freeing effect on his game.
"Sometimes during your career, when you're striving to achieve things, you can lose track of that pure enjoyment of playing the game that you have as a kid," he says.
"You have to be focused and driven, but at the same time you can probably want something too much.
"I made a decision that wherever I was going to play my cricket – whether it was club cricket for Randwick, or for NSW, or county cricket – I was just going to really enjoy it.
"At the same time, I know my mindset that season was extremely ruthless … I just had it in my mind that I wasn't going to take any liberties with anyone.
"If I got in, I was going to go big."
Katich was true to his word across two days at the SCG during the Blues' first home game of the summer.
Batting second after Queensland had made 467, he came to the middle at 1-38 and occupied the crease for the next eight hours, becoming the first man in 77 years to score a first-class triple-century at the fabled venue. His 306 came from just 351 balls and included 30 fours and nine sixes, as the left-hander dominated a spectacular 344-run partnership with Brad Haddin (123) that raced along at 5.5 runs per over.
"We were trying to set the game up by getting ahead, and in the middle session on day three we just started motoring," Katich remembers.
"Next thing you know we're at a drinks break and we're saying, 'Geez, what are we going to do here?' We were scoring that quickly.
"(Afterward) someone said no-one had scored a triple hundred at the SCG since 'The Don'. When I heard that I was like, 'Wow' – I had no idea.
"I don't think it was my best innings for the season though."
Less than a fortnight later, Katich was at it again in Adelaide, locking horns with South Australia pace pair Ryan Harris and Jason Gillespie in what he rates as his finest performance of the summer. In a match where only two other batsmen passed fifty, Katich made 117 out of 309 in NSW's first innings, then followed it up with an unbeaten 63 to help his team chase down a target of 168.
"At the time, the two standout bowlers in the Shield were Dougy Bollinger for us, and Ryan Harris for South Australia," he says. "So the hundred I made there was probably my best innings (of the summer), just being able to set the game up, and given the way the wicket was playing and the fact it wasn't as high-scoring."
At the Christmas break, Katich had 878 runs at 109.75 and the Blues were unbeaten from six matches. In a squad boasting promising rookies Khawaja, Steve Smith and Phillip Hughes (who all made their first-class debuts that summer), he took a lot from his leadership role.
"The responsibility of being captain helped me, because you need to be setting the right example with the way you go about it, and I certainly tried to do that for a lot of those younger guys," says Katich, who nowadays is head coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League.
"I'd just try and teach them what professional cricket was all about. I look back on my career and I was very fortunate to have great guidance early on (at Western Australia) from guys like Tom Moody, my captain, our coach Wayne Clark and all the senior players.
"In that sense my career had come full circle, and it was my time to be able to try and pass on some of those lessons to the younger guys at New South Wales like Uzzy, Steve Smith and Phil Hughes."
In the new year, Katich's purple patch continued. He scored 189 in a nine-wicket win over WA, then 71 & 21, and 129 & 40 in hard-fought draws against Victoria and Tasmania respectively. With one regular-round match remaining, as well as the final, Katich had already produced the third-highest runs tally in a Shield season.
"When you're in control of your game like that, you still feel like you have to respect the game by starting again, and that was probably the big thing that helped me – I was experienced by that point, so I had learnt that over many years," he says.
"Whereas when you're younger and you've been scoring runs, you just expect it'll keep happening, but it doesn't always work like that.
"With where I'd come from, and wanting to get back in and play Test cricket again, there was that desire to really cash in and make the most of that form."
In perhaps another parallel with Bradman from that summer, he made a duck in his only innings in that final regular-season game, before turning in another player-of-the-match performance in the season decider against Victoria at the SCG.
After opting to bat first, Katich top-scored for the Blues with 86 then bettered it with 92 in the second innings, falling short of a hundred but becoming the first man to pass 1,500 runs in a Shield season as NSW stormed to a 258-run win.
It saw him finish the summer 498 runs clear of the next highest Shield run scorer; he had effectively scored a third more runs than anyone else.
Katich remembers the season's final now for his time spent in the middle with the late Hughes, with whom he shared a 145-run stand in the second innings.
"That's one of the greatest memories I've got with Hughesy, and we've got plenty of them," Katich says. "But that one in particular, I think he was the youngest player ever to score a hundred in a Sheffield Shield final, and it was against a very good, experienced Victorian attack.
"We had a good first-innings lead but there was still plenty of work to be done, and Hughesy played magnificently."
Since being dropped shortly after the 2005 Ashes, Katich had scored 3,608 first-class runs at an average of 78.43. With a Test tour to the Caribbean only two months after the 2007-08 Shield final, his numbers simply demanded his inclusion.
"I remember watching that season as a selector and thinking how extraordinary it was," recalls Jamie Cox, who was on the national selection panel at the time.
"It was a case of, 'Well how do you not play a bloke who has just done this?'"
Katich made 97 and 37no against a Jamaica XI, and with Hayden out injured, he made the most of an opportunity to open in the Tests, hitting hundreds in games two and three. It was the beginning of a career renaissance; for the next two years, no-one scored more Test runs, and in 2010 Katich was selected in the ICC Test Team of the Year.
"I was the most consistent I'd been because I was determined to make the most of every opportunity,” he reflects. “But in that last phase of my career, I certainly played with a lot of enjoyment and a sense of fun as well.
"Maybe that freed me up to do what I did, and maybe that came from experience as well – it's hard to tell – but it was extremely satisfying just to be able to prove that, even though I was later in my career, age was just a number. I understood my game, I knew what I was trying to do, and I was really hungry to do well.
"The other thing too, looking back on that period I was one of the more senior players in that team. There had been a lot of guys (retire) in that 2006-07 period so I think that extra responsibility brought out the best in me.
"When I'd been in the team previously, there hadn't always been many opportunities to try and win games because there were so many dominant guys at the top of the order and I was batting at six."
Katich scored eight hundreds and averaged 50.48 in a 33-match second chapter to his Test career, before he was again a controversial axing following Australia's home Ashes defeat of 2010-11, with Ricky Ponting later calling the decision "as dumb a non-selection as any during my time in the Australian team".
It was cold comfort for Katich, but more than two years later, then Cricket Australia chairman Wally Edwards conceded it had been the wrong call, reflecting that the veteran batsman would've been "a valuable player" for a national side in transition.
Just recently, Katich had to pack up some old cricket gear, and he stumbled across the bat he had used through that 2007-08 summer.
"It was a Kookaburra Beast," he says, "and I actually retired it after that season because it had done such a great job for me.
"It was getting taped up here and there, and I decided I couldn't put it through any more. It was a beautiful bat. It's stashed away now, in safekeeping."
So too are his memories from that summer. Of triple-tons and trophies, of determination and triumph. Of Hughesy, and a return to Baggy Green.
"Looking back now, what makes me most proud of that summer was that we won the Pura Cup, as it was called then, with a relatively young team," he says.
"It was nice to have done really well personally, but to have done it as skipper and held the Cup aloft made it much more special.
"And with the background of what had been said six or 12 months earlier, it was a very special season."
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