Marsh Sheffield Shield 2021-22
Head proves Ashes credentials but Bulls on the brink of victory
Gurinder Sandhu took a career-best haul of six wickets with a century from Travis Head not enough to get South Australia back into their Sheffield Shield clash with Queensland
Andrew Ramsey at Karen Rolton Oval
25 November 2021, 08:00 PM AEST
Travis Head might have lodged a last-minute bid for a Test recall with a dogged century, but it was career-best figures from Queensland recruit Gurinder Sandhu that seems certain to decide the final Marsh Sheffield Shield match before the mid-summer hiatus.
Sandhu's 6-57 from 21 overs in his just his third Shield outing for Queensland saw South Australia bowled out for 284 half an hour prior to stumps on day three, an overall lead of 87 which the Bulls had reduced by five without loss by day's end.
When he claimed the key wickets of Henry Hunt and Alex Carey in his sixth over, the 28-year-old – who moved to Queensland this year after stints with the Blues and Tasmania – sported the remarkable figures of 4-13, having claimed the first four SA wickets to fall.
And when he claimed his fifth scalp after lunch, he completed his first five-for since the very start of his cricket journey that’s taken him from Sydney to Hobart and now Brisbane.
Notwithstanding the occasional assistance offered to seamers by a problematic patch on the Karen Rolton Oval pitch, Sandhu's haul was earned with immaculate control and faith from skipper Usman Khawaja who entrusted the former Australia ODI representative to send down as many second-innings overs as front-line pair Mark Steketee and Jack Wildermuth combined.
"Looking back, a year and a half ago I wasn't really sure if I was going to play first-class cricket again, let alone taking six-for," Sandhu said at day's end.
"We all know about that little wet spot (on the pitch), and we just felt that maybe my height being a bit taller and hitting the wicket a bit more, we just felt like it did a bit more up and down.
"It just felt like I was able to get a bit more happening out of that wet spot ... it definitely felt like I was getting a bit of extra assistance from that spot."
The significance of Head's 101 (from 149 balls faced) was underscored by the fact none of his teammates reached 50 in either of the Redbacks' innings over the past two days.
And while social media mused over rival skipper Khawaja's benevolence in enforcing the follow-on and thereby potentially robbing himself of a final Shield innings before the first Ashes Test, it was more a curiosity than a calculated risk.
Australia's selection chair George Bailey revealed upon naming the 15-man Ashes squad last week that the panel was already "pretty close" to deciding who would fill the number five batting berth against England at the Gabba, and it's unlikely today's events would sway their view.
Bailey had also indicated he wasn't fazed that Head's form had tapered in recent while Khawaja's had blossomed, but the surety shown by the former as wickets fell around him and in conditions that have encouraged seamers and spinners alike was as timely as it was defiant.
The left-hander began in typically positive fashion despite the dire predicament of his team, punching the second delivery he received from Sandhu to the extra cover boundary.
But from that point, there were few flourishes in Head's batting as he battled the occasional vagaries of the unpredictable pitch and the strangling tactics of Queensland as Khawaja deployed some innovative fields.
At one stage, with fellow left-hander Harry Nielsen on strike, Khawaja was one of three fielders placed in a straight line from short-leg to deep forward square, and they were flanked by catchers at forward short-leg and leg slip as well as deep backward square on the boundary rope.
With that field in place and seamers Sandhu, Steketee and James Bazley firing the ball into the ribs of the SA batters, scoring was tough as Head and Nielsen put together 93 from almost 30 overs for the fifth wicket.
Head's half-century – his first since posting 55 in the Shield match against Queensland at Adelaide Oval a month ago – arrived from 92 balls but faced, but he barely acknowledged the milestone before settling back over his bat.
He was marginally more animated when he reached 100 with a replica of the shot he employed to get off the mark, and was clearly disappointed with himself when he feathered a catch behind off Matt Kuhnemann soon after with SA's lead a paltry 36.
Some spirited late-order resistance from Nathan McAndrew (37) and Daniel Worrall (24) lifted the margin to 87, but with fine weather forecast in Adelaide tomorrow it would require a turn of events even more unforeseen than day one's pitch drama to prevent a Bulls win.
Having resumed their first innings this morning in critical condition at 8-93 (206 runs in arrears), the Redbacks' position immediately became terminal when their last recognised batter – all-rounder Liam Scott – was pinned lbw by the morning's fourth delivery.
When the innings wound up seven overs later, Queensland initially toyed with their dispirited rivals by suggesting they might bat again, with Bulls openers Joe Burns and Bryce Street sprinting from the field at the fall of the ultimate wicket.
"There was a bit of cat and mouse there," Sandhu revealed about the short-lived ploy.
But 10 minutes later SA were back at the crease and the new ball was in the hands of Jack Wildermuth and first innings destroyer Matt Kuhnemann who finished the game with 8-122.
For the first hour and more of the Redbacks' second dig, the game followed a more conventional Rolton Oval script as bowlers struggled to induce false shots and openers Jake Weatherald and Hunt scored at almost four runs per over.
The only element of abnormality came when Weatherald took issue with his Adelaide Strikers teammate Matthew Renshaw's decision to place a spare protective helmet on the crease line at over's end, from where the SA opener booted it towards the square leg umpire.
Weatherald's irritation was then shared by Bulls skipper Khawaja as the pair exchanged views, before umpire Donovan Koch intervened to defray the tension.
If nothing else, the incident kicked the Redbacks pair into gear as they helped themselves to 33 runs from the ensuing seven overs.
But Renshaw had the final giggle when he held a straightforward catch off Weatherald at square leg, a wicket against the run of play that set-in motion a now hauntingly familiar cascade of events.
In the space of 40 deliveries, SA lost 4-21 as Sandhu cut a swathe through the top-order and put his most-recently adopted state on the path to their second victory of their 2021-22 Shield defence.
In nine of their previous Shield innings since the start of last summer, SA have suffered batting implosions during which they've surrendered clumps of at least five wickets for the addition of less than 50 runs.
The most spectacular was the 8-39 they coughed up against the Bulls at Glenelg Oval a year ago, but also includes 6-45 and 5-26 (against WA at Rolton Oval last summer) and then 5-36 against the same opponent in Perth months later.
This season, they've capitulated to lose 6-46 (against WA at Rolton), 5-18 against Queensland at Adelaide Oval, 5-32 and 8-49 against WA at the WACA Ground and 8-44 in the first innings of the current game in a winless Shield streak stretching back to February, 2020.
Invariably, fortune rarely favours teams doing it tough and today Hunt (lbw for 39 to a delivery he seemed convinced he had hit) and Carey (caught at short leg for three from a ball he appeared equally certain he had not) felt luck deserted them in the course of a single over.
But there was little doubt about the catch that flew to slip from high on Jake Carder's bat, the mishit drive hauled in by Bazley at full stretch from Harry Nielsen, and Scott's decision to shoulder arms to a ball that crashed into middle and off stumps.
That dismissal completed Sandhu's first five-wicket haul in first-class cricket since he burst on to the scene as a 19-year-old in 2013, when his maiden outing for New South Wales netted him 5-31 against Victoria at the MCG.
He admits he's a vastly different bowler from the teenager who took the field that day and credits the welcome he's received from the Queensland players, including bowling coach Andy Bichel who encouraged Sandhu to "think big" and target a haul of seven, eight or nine wickets after his early success today.
"I was like 'yeah, I'm with you – I'm thinking big, I'm thinking big'," Sandhu said of the ex-Test quick's encouragement.
"But at the time I was happy with four, really happy.
"They (Queensland) have been very welcoming, especially for a former Blue-bagger.
"It's been amazing."