January is not usually a time for rugby league teams to join, rejoin or quit competitions – or for State of Origin sides to go into camp.
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With the domestic one-day and Twenty20 titles done and dusted, the Bupa Sheffield Shield is beginning to heat up again. With one round of matches left any of four sides could feature in the final, let alone host it as well.
Only South Australia and New South Wales are out of the finals race.
The question is, when four becomes two, who will come out on top?
With the completion of nine rounds four sides are still in the running for the right to host the Sheffield Shield final. Three sides – Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania – are equal on points, while Western Australia are only just ahead.
In the final round of matches Victoria host New South Wales at the MCG, Tasmania play Western Australia in Hobart, and Queensland take on South Australia at the Gabba.
With all sides so close every run is crucial, every catch is like gold, and innings points will be on the line.
After the close finish in the Ryobi Cup final, fans of domestic cricket are looking for another tight finish. Western Australia takes the advantage. As they lead the table by four points they will only need to secure first-innings points to secure their spot in the final. They take on a Tasmanian side, who will be boosted by some national team inclusions.
Victoria and Queensland take on the two bottom sides in South Australia and New South Wales. The question in whether the lowly placed Blues and Redbacks can cause last-minute upsets.
Western Australia versus Tasmania
Last time these two sides met was mid-November, with both sides featuring national representatives. In the end Western Australia prevailed with a 25-run win after losing the first innings. Both sides failed early in the game before Adam Voges and Liam Davis put on 285 runs between them in the second innings to post a tough chase of 407 runs for the Tigers. After the top order failed George Bailey and Ricky Ponting pulled their side up. Thanks to some cameos from a tough middle order, the Tigers almost got over the line, falling just 25 runs short. Mitchell Johnson finished the innings with 5/69 from 29 overs.
The result of this game is critical for all sides. If Western Australia win they secure a home final. If they can only manage first-innings points they will all but guarantee themselves a finals berth. Tasmania need to grab six points to cement themselves a place. Anything less will leave their fate in the hands of Victoria and Queensland. Both sides have been able to post competitive totals in recent matches, yet will need to force a result in order to confirm their place in the final.
Verdict: Tasmania 2, Western Australia 0. Tasmania will win on first-innings points with Western Australia holding on for a draw.
Victoria versus New South Wales
The old rivals will clash heads once again. In round one New South Wales got off to a shaky start and couldn’t recover, as Victoria took first-innings points thanks to a century from Rob Quiney and 92 from Glenn Maxwell. New South Wales set about accumulating 427, only to be cut short of a result. The match ended in a draw.
Simon Katich and Ben Rohrer battled for centuries in the New South Wales second innings, with 110 and 114 respectively, to ensure that New South Wales would not give up points in the second innings.
New South Wales’ Cup hopes are completely out of the equation. With only 10 points they cannot make it regardless. As such their mission in the final round will be to shake things up for the Bushrangers, who will need to complete the game with the full six points in order to play a part in the Sheffield Shield Final.
Verdict: Victoria 6, New South Wales 0. Victoria will claim first innings points and have to plan the last half of the match in order to ensure a result.
Queensland versus South Australia
When these two sides played earlier in the season South Australia produced one of its best performances. The Redbacks posted a defendable 9-349 with Michael Klinger (93) and Dan Christian (108) the standouts. All thoughts of first-innings points were quickly dashed when Wade Townsend and Peter Forrest helped the Bulls to 3/350 declared, claiming first-innings points. South Australia’s bid to post a high total was shattered when they lost a wicket in the first over. After that the players weren’t able to post high scores. Queensland were then set the task of chasing 260 inside the final two sessions of the match. They did so in 61 over, with 4 wickets in hand.
Queensland have managed to pull themselves out of a first-innings rut on a few occasions this season. But expect South Australia to come hard, especially if they bat first. The question is, can their bowlers stand up? Queensland should consolidate at least some points from this match, but will need full points to make their spot safe.
Verdict: Queensland 6, South Australia 0.
With that said the ladder would take shape as follows:
Victoria and Queensland will both be tied on 36 points
Western Australia 34
New South Wales 10
South Australia on two.
Working off current percentage that would give Victoria the home final against Queensland.
With games starting on Wednesday morning, and such an array of outcomes, it is pretty clear we won’t have the final set in stone until the last ball is bowled. What a round of action it will be.