Marsh Sheffield Shield 2020-21
Redbacks return to the scene of Shield final pain
A look at the contrasting fortunes of South Australia and Victoria since the Vics won the Shield decider between the two teams five years ago
29 October 2020, 09:17 AM AEST
When South Australia last hosted Victoria at Glenelg Oval five summers ago, the Redbacks were riding high.
Having finished atop the Sheffield Shield ladder, five months after reaching the final of the domestic one-day competition, SA were eyeing their most promising period since David Hookes's blazing blade helped deliver regular trophies in the 1980s.
However, since suffering a seven-wicket loss to their more experienced eastern rivals in the 2015-16 play-off, it's been Victoria who have enjoyed a purple patch of success with two further Shield triumphs while the Redbacks have pocketed three consecutive wooden spoons.
The failure to secure the Shield since 1995-96 led SA Cricket Association to this year commission a review of top-level men's cricket by ex-Test batter Michael Hussey, an examination that aired claims of a "culture of mediocrity for many years".
But the Redbacks longest-serving current player, Callum Ferguson, believes the culture within the Redbacks player group is stronger now than it was earlier in his 18-year senior playing career and claims SA's Shield-winning 'window' remains open despite their wretched recent run.
Ferguson, who is on track this summer to become SA's most-capped Shield player, notes the young talent that's been largely grown rather than procured has helped forge a close-knit group.
And it's the very real prospect of another crack at a Shield final that has driven the 35-year-old to pad up for another first-class season.
"I feel like over the past 15 or 16 years with South Australia, maybe we've gone for the miracle decision a few times in regards to selection or perhaps even recruitment," Ferguson told cricket.com.au.
"So from that perspective, I wonder whether we've not quite built as well we could have.
"We've perhaps swung big changes too frequently, and that can sometimes be born out of an absolute want to win but I feel with this current squad, there has been a real build.
"Whilst we haven't had the results we wanted in the last couple of years, we've started to develop a core group of players that - if we continue to build around - will have some sustained success coming soon.
"I'm really excited for this season because I do believe the window (for winning the Shield) is not shut on us.
"Like with any Shield side, keeping your quicks fit is really important and if we're able to do that it will go a long way towards us being right in the mix at the back-end of the season.
'We've got a young spinner (Lloyd Pope) and we've got a crop of batsmen in their mid to late 20s who should really be coming into the peaks of their careers now, and that excites me as well."
It's not difficult to unearth data that validates Ferguson's enthusiasm.
Since that Shield final loss at Glenelg in 2016, SA have provided four of the competition's top dozen runs scorers – Jake Weatherald, Travis Head, Tom Cooper and Ferguson – as well as three of the top 12 wicket-takers (Chadd Sayers, Joe Mennie and Daniel Worrall).
No other Sheffield Shield team can claim more than four names on that combined list yet the Redbacks have won just nine matches and lost 23 from 42 starts in that time, while Victoria's win-loss record is 20-8.
Hussey's review recommended SA actively pursue the "10th to 15th best interstate players" as well as uncontracted under-19 representatives from around the country to fill holes on the Redbacks playing list.
But SA's High Performance Manager, and former Australia men's team coach Tim Nielsen, says luring proven players from rival teams is far tougher in cricket than it is in domestic football codes given the disparity in incentives on offer.
With the nation's top 20 men's players on Cricket Australia contracts, and the next tier on the top-level deals offered by state teams, the pool of players who might look to explore options elsewhere is limited and most prefer to remain in their home states.
There are those such as ex-New South Wales batter Ryan Gibson and fast bowler Tom Pinson who have relocated from Sydney this summer to play Premier Cricket in Adelaide without any contractual surety.
And SA's current starting XI includes interstate recruits Henry Hunt (ACT) and Wes Agar (Victoria).
While noting the Hussey review recommendation, Nielsen maintains confidence in pathways programs developed in 2013 after SA won the national under-19 championship and members of that team (Head, Cameron Valente and Nielsen's son Harry) were fast-tracked to senior cricket.
"One of our aims was to focus on the best young talent coming through our system," Nielsen told cricket.com.au.
"There was a view that if we continued to bring in players from interstate on a regular basis, there was a chance we'd get people who didn't necessarily understand the history of where we're at, or might be looking for a chance just to play first-class cricket rather than have a burning desire to play for SA.
"Our challenge was to try and find ways – unless we had a glaring hole from a skills perspective in our list – we could promote and push our own talent a bit more.
"Travis (Head) is probably the shining light of that, becoming captain and now moving on to be a regular in the Australian Test side, a bit the same as (men's team limited-overs keeper) Alex Carey.
"But when it comes to recruiting, I can promise you we don't sit on our hands and just keep rolling along.
"We've probably had five or six prospects that we've got really close to signing, but in the end their home state has said 'okay, we'll offer you the same option' whether it be a full contract or a rookie contract and they end up staying put."
SA have not beaten Victoria in the Marsh Sheffield Shield since the season they hosted the final, and have lost seven of the past 11 matches between the teams in that time.
But while the Redbacks have yet to record a victory in their two Shield outings so far this summer, they enter their upcoming fixture at Glenelg starting Friday with reason for optimism, even if it's not quite as bountiful as prior to the trophy decider in 2016.
Firstly, they batted out the final day of their Shield game against Tasmania last week to secure a draw whereas in their three previous outings their batting capitulated in the fourth innings (where they faced an average of 83 overs) to send them to a hat-trick of defeats.
Last week's result was achieved largely due to skipper Head, who batted almost six hours to score an unbeaten 171 and carry to his team to a draw.
"We'll probably lose Travis for a period of time when he goes to play for Australia so we'll have to fill that gap with a younger, developing player and that's why we need to remain patient," Nielsen said.
"We need to find the next group that can ideally get through and play 30-40 games and start contributing consistently to help the growth of the team, rather than chopping and changing with selection and trying to find that miracle fix."
The other potential positive for SA is Victoria's recent quarantine restrictions, which meant they have only recently returned to full training and were unable to take part in the first two rounds of the current Shield season, so therefore might be lacking in competitive match practice.
Certainly Nielsen says there will be no lingering anxieties among the SA players for their return to Glenelg where they've played twice (albeit not against Victoria) since the Shield final opportunity they let slip.
But Ferguson, who was confined to the sidelines of that game due to a serious knee injury, carries clear recollections that have continued to drive him through the disappointments of recent seasons.
"That still burns," he said of SA's loss in the 2015-16 trophy decider.
"I'm desperate for us to get into that position again, and be able to play in and contribute to a home final.
"That was a big one for me, so there's a real fire in my belly to try and win a Shield and that's why I'm desperately keen to be playing because it's hard to watch that from the sidelines."