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The Southern Redbacks – Signs of Improvement

The Southern Redbacks - Signs of Improvement

Like a rose fighting its way through heavy soil, thus progresses the season of the South Australian cricket team. Whilst the chances of obtaining silverware for Adelaide Oval’s display cabinet have faded for 2008/09, there is much cause for optimism among the wreckage of losses and missed opportunities. The eventual rise of South Australia, it was said, would be a slow burn after the disappointments of past seasons. There are encouraging signs that progress is indeed being made.

The beginning of the season saw new faces from other states and renewed hopes of a strong showing. The primary cause of match losses in previous seasons was attributed to the SACA’s inability to stay at the wicket long enough to threaten opposition bowlers and the runs scored by their batsmen. It was, with some justification, felt that some tight bowling followed by a wide delivery or short ball would force a get-out shot from SA’s batsmen and examples to support such a conclusion were plentiful. In response, the early play by SA this season was one of slow scoring and wicket-preservation. This meant they didn’t legitimately threaten many of the teams they played. But, they weren’t losing any more. Many of the get-out shots from seasons past were shelved in favour of occupying the crease and, as it were, `batting time`. The message was seemingly that of the batsmen proving to themselves and others they could at least keep out opposition bowlers, runs would come eventually.

The seeds of confidence planted in those early games has started to take root. Subsequent matches against strong opposition have seen South Australia display strong showings with the bat and enabled the team to overcome a lack of penetration with the ball. They are legitimately threatening opposition sides and individual players are beginning to be noticed by the national selectors and rewarded for their performances. In three matches this season, SA have been involved in last-day chases (whether batting or bowling) and have come close to snatching victory in two of them. The winning match against QLD, where SA lost 7 wickets chasing 334 for victory engendered much confidence in South Australia. Although SA’s only outright win for the season, opposition teams are not taking SA quite as lightly as they might have in the past. The confidence is yet to transfer fully into championship points but it seems inevitable that close losses will begin to turn into close wins.

Many thought the South Australian revival would arrive via the bowling but it has been the batting which has ignited the slow burn. Michael Klinger is the most in-form batsman in the country, topping the Sheffield Shield run-scorers list and averaging 50+ in the Ford Ranger Cup. After scoring 2 hundreds in 7 seasons with Victoria, he has scored 4 this season so far and in so doing, has become the greatest return-on-investment anyone can remember. High scoring batsmen are nothing new at Adelaide, the difference now is that Klinger`s well-known prodigious talent, finally bearing fruit, has helped to provide formerly average or under-achieving batsmen around him the street-smarts and confidence to play above their station. They now have a beacon by which to navigate their own careers as such dramatic improvement as displayed by Klinger seems within their reach and they have played accordingly. Callum Ferguson has produced his most consistent season as has Daniel Harris and with Klinger are 3 of the top 11 run-scorers inn Sheffield Shield cricket this season. All three feature in Ford Ranger Cup scoring and Ferguson`s runs look likely to reward him with his first one-day international appearance for Australia against New Zealand this Friday. The one huge disappointment in SA`s batting has been Mark Cosgrove. He has only played a couple of Ford Ranger Cup matches this season and seems certain to be shopping around for a new state to play for. Certainly, the temptation must have been great to keep playing him and hope he recaptured his run-scoring form from two years ago but it was a strong move to set standards and stick to them and picking less volatile players has paid dividends.q

The addition of exciting imported players has injected verve into the side. Although only playing for a few games, Younis Khan made some very important runs, one innings strongly contributing to SA`s outright win against QLD. Khan`s presence amongst the squad has directly affected the culture of the team. Aside from Klinger, Tom Cooper played an innings of class against a near Test-strength bowling attack in NSW and Dan Christian, originally from NSW, has re-invented himself as a bowling all-rounder, taking several wickets including a 5-wicket innings haul against Victoria in SA`s most recent match.

Mention must also be made of the capaincy of Graeme Manou. His on-field leadership has naturally followed from his batting which has been more consistent and introspective as even he, prone to rushes of blood previously, has towed the party line of crease occupation. His keeping has also been of high standard with 25 dismissals in 7 matches. On-field, his captaincy has been enterprising and his use of the all-rounders in particular has displayed much tactical nous and his experiemental captaincy is relective of the mood at SACA in general; it’s time to be a bit bold after the disaster in negotiation which resulted in Ryan Harris moving North-East.

The bowling, somewhat surprisingly, has been rather moribund this season. Predicted to be the strength of South Australia for many years, none of the front-line South Australian bowlers averages less than 30 in Sheffield Shield cricket. Tait and Cleary have taken wickets in Ford Ranger Cup matches but they have also been in-and-out of the side with injury. Shaun Tait`s form in Sheffield Shield cricket has been fairly barren and observers have noticed a worrying lack of fitness and stamina when at the bowling crease. It seems that SA`s bowlers are suffering the misfortune of all being out of form at the same time. Dan Cullen has been the only specialist spin bowler given a run this year and his results have been disappointing.

Even amongst the chaff, some wheat has been noted. West Torrens fast bowler Peter George nearly bowled SA to victory in his first Sheffield Shield match, taking 4/56 in the first innings in Hobart. He is in possession of a Glenn McGrath-esque bowling action and similar temperament making him one bowler to note down in the mind`s form-guide for future reference. Similarly, and unusually for SA, all-rounders have been contributing regularly with wickets. Dan Harris has seen plenty of the ball and taken wickets as well as the aforementioned Dan Christian. Aaron O`Brien`s bowling, however, has been disappointing.

The optimism regarding South Australia`s bowling, though, has all but disappeared but never more so than with it`s spin bowling stocks. Both formerly Cricket Australia contracted spin bowlers struggle to make an impact in Adelaide. A re-think of tactics may be the solution as the old `bowl straight around Tait` methodology really on works when he`s taking wickets. Tait is goiing for a similar number of runs at a similar rate to previous seasons but he`s not taking wickets. Injury has obviously played its part but the aforementioned fitness issues are worrying signs for him personally and for SA`s fortunes next season.

In conclusion, improvement abounds in Adelaide but at a slow rate, the success of the team moving incrementally upwards with the occasional step back but generally moving in the right direction on the back of very solid, smart batting. The first item on the winning agenda should be to win most if not all matches in Adelaide. From there will flow wins outside of Adelaide but key to that is an improvement in the penetration of the attack. A leader of the attack is needed. A better showing from Shaun Tait is crucial as he sets the thermostat for bowler morale in SA. If he`s taking wickets, the SA attack with an accurate Peter George and seam-up Mark Cleary or one of the younger quicks tried in Ford Ranger Cup matches could run red-hot on its day. More critically, SA needs more from its spin bowler, whomever they pick. A spinner who can take regular wickets on Adelaide Oval has historically been worth their weight in gold and would contribute immensely to SA making Adelaide a more awkward place for opposition teams to visit. The signs of improvement are all there. The team will just have to keep burning slowly and perhaps by next season, they`ll have the right combination of raw talent and experience to succeed.

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