For the first time in this year’s Sheffield Shield we had a full round of fixtures as Victoria was finally able to be invited to the party.
It was a real mixed bag of matches. There was an instant classic as New South Wales held on to beat Queensland. South Australia and Victoria was tense at times, but ended in a draw, while Tasmania and Western Australia was dominated by the bat and ended in a fairly tame draw.
What have we learned from the last three games in the Shield competition?
Pucovski and Harris make history
The Sheffield Shield has had almost 130 years of history. In that time there have only been five previous partnerships in excess of 400 runs. The previous highest partnership was between Steve and Mark Waugh who scored 464 unbeaten runs together in 1990. The previous best opening partnership was Geoff Marsh and Mike Veletta who put on 431 runs in 1989.
These records were rendered obsolete over the weekend. Marcus Harris and Will Pucovski opened the innings for Victoria in response to South Australia’s first innings and 486 runs later they were finally separated. It was a magnificent display of batting that matched impregnable defence with controlled aggression.
There was no point with their massive partnership where it felt like South Australia were able to retain a measure of control over the game. They balanced easy singles and consistent boundaries.
It’s true that Harris and Pucovski were able to make their runs on a fairly flat pitch against a relatively punchless attack. However, this does negate their tremendous achievement.
There is a reason that only five previous batting pairs have scored over 400 runs together in the Sheffield Shield. There is a reason why Pucovski and Harris have the sixth-greatest first wicket partnership in first-class cricket.
It is really, really hard to maintain that level of concentration over such an extended period of time. Theirs was a truly amazing achievement and we were lucky to have seen such batting excellence.
Joe Burns is under some heat
Australia have long searched for a stable opening partner to play alongside David Warner. Warner has batted with 12 different opening partners since his debut and outside of Chris Rogers, none have been particularly fruitful.
The current second banana to Warner is Joe Burns who played in Australia’s six Test matches during the 2019-20 summer.
Burns has shown the ability to score at Test match level, as demonstrated by his four Test centuries. However, Burns’ career in the baggy green has been defined by an inability to consistently get starts.
In 17 of his 36 Test innings, Burns has scored less than 15 runs. So history has shown that Burns will fail almost half of the time that he goes out to bat in a Test match. For this reason, Burns has struggled to cement himself for an extended period of time within the Test team.
Burns is the incumbent and was ok against Pakistan and New Zealand. As such, it is likely that he will be selected to play against India. However, it is easy to imagine that Australia’s selectors are not overly attached to Joe Burns and will be happy to consider other possible alternatives.
If that is the case, then there was a lot from the previous round of the Sheffield Shield that should make Burns feel very nervous. In addition to Pucovski and Harris’ gargantuan efforts, both Cameron Bancroft and Sam Whiteman scored strong centuries against Tasmania.
Outside of Sam Whiteman, three of those centurions have either played Test cricket for Australia or have been selected in an Australian squad.
At this stage, Burns will play the first Test against India. However, he will be on a short leash. The player to watch for Burns’ position is Pucovski. The young Victorian has never previously opened the batting in first class cricket, but has shown a clear affinity for the role. If Pucovski scores runs in Victoria’s next two games, then his case will be hard to ignore.
Mitchell Swepson plays his best ever game
In my four takeaways from the first round of Sheffield Shield action, I noted Swepson’s excellent start to the season but wanted to see more evidence that he could maintain those performances against better teams in different conditions.
I am entirely on the Mitchell Swepson bandwagon now. Against a high-quality NSW batting line-up, Swepson took his first ever 10-wicket haul in a game. On its own, this was incredibly impressive but there were two factors that made his performance even more remarkable.
Firstly, these were not conditions that were naturally beneficial for spinners. The pitch at Karen Rolton Oval had a lot of grass on day one and didn’t wear a lot later in the game meaning there was little natural assistance for the spin bowlers.
Australia’s best spin-bowler, Nathan Lyon, was also playing on this pitch and could only get two wickets and conceded over four runs per over.
Secondly, in NSW’s second innings, Swepson was bowling in the most challenging circumstances that can face a spin bowler. Swepson was leading a bowling attack trying to defend a small target. In these circumstances a bowler has to tread that fine line between being dangerous and preventing the opposition from scoring easy runs.
Swepson kept that balance perfectly. He maintained a consistent line and length throughout and accordingly only conceded 2.55 runs per over. Yet, Swepson was threatening to the Blues’ batsmen throughout. His performance in the final session of the match was a masterclass.
His best delivery may have been one that did not get a wicket. Bowling to Sean Abbott, Swepson unveiled a delivery that was flighted so beautifully that it drew Abbott forward out of his crease.
The rotation on the ball meant that it drifted away to Abbott’s left and spun sharply to his right past Abbott’s groping outside edge. If not for some questionable glovework from Jimmy Pierson this delivery would have delivered a stumping and perhaps changed the result of the game.
If it wasn’t before, it is clear now that Swepson is Australia’s second-best spin bowler. Whilst Swepson is unlikely to play in the Test matches this year, he will play for Australia in the future.
Travis Head’s fighting spirit shines through
South Australia’s last two games against Tasmania and Victoria have felt remarkably familiar for Travis Head. In both matches, Head failed to reach double figures in his first innings as the Redbacks collapsed to a below-par total. In each game Head watched as his side conceded massive first innings deficits.
And on both occasions, South Australia was able to survive due to Head scoring a massive century in the second innings.
These performances by Head demonstrate a very valuable ability for a test-match quality batsman, the skill to compartmentalise your game. Head is the captain of a South Australian team who has struggled throughout its first three games.
There is also the pressure on Head to maintain his spot in Australia’s team despite real pressure from Cameron Green and Will Pucovski. Despite those significant external pressures, Head has been able to score big. These big scores can only occur if a player is able to centralise themselves in the moment and avoid any outside distractions that could negatively influence their performance.
Early in Head’s Test career he made a lot of starts but failed to make the big score. In eight of his first 16 innings, Head was dismissed between 30 and 90. He was playing well but not scoring the runs that his team needed. This suggests that he was unable to maintain the necessary level of concentration throughout their innings.
Head’s last two innings provide hope that he may be developing the mental strength needed to be a high-quality Test match player.
As with Joe Burns, I have little doubt that Head will get the opportunity to start Australia’s series against India. It remains to be seen whether his last two games for South Australia are the signs of a positive change in Head’s mindset, or a mirage for a talented player who has not quite performed at his best.