It was Bing Crosby who once told us “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” but I’m here now to let you know it’s beginning to look a lot like cricket season.
That Christmas comes along as a bonus during the height of summer should be viewed as little more than good timing.
There’s a better than even chance your football team is already out of contention for this year’s premiership, so why not quit the moping and get on board with your state of choice for what looms as another close-fought Sheffield Shield season.
Queensland Bulls just snuck past an impressive Tasmanian Tigers outfit in last season’s decider, making the most of home ground advantage after a final round that gave any one of four sides a chance to host the big dance.
Whether it’s that close again this year is too tough to call, but even the casual observer may be convinced to put red ink through the chances of a couple of states based on squad strength alone.
A couple of household names have shifted homes during the off-season while a number of veteran performers have decided to pack away the whites once and for all.
With the first ball to be bowled in anger next week, it seems like the perfect time to run a casual eye over the six competitors for the number one prize in domestic cricket.
The Bulls have undoubtedly strengthened by raiding their arch-enemy in NSW and dipping into the WA talent pool as well.
Top order prospect Usman Khawaja and fading off-spinner Nathan Hauritz have moved north while Luke Pomersbach has made his way across the Nullarbor.
Khawaja will be hoping to reassert his claim on a baggy green and coach Darren Lehman will have high hopes for the compact left-hander adding valuable experience to an otherwise underpowered top order.
Peter Forrest looms as the other ‘name’ batsman in the Bulls’ line-up and in Pomersbach they have a hefty hitter who is yet to make a lasting impression on the longer form of the game.
The Bulls also boast a devastating pace battery and if Ben Cutting, Alister McDermott and CA contracted Ryan Harris hit form they’ll bag their fair share of outrights.
Look for old heads in James Hopes and ‘keeper Chris Hartley to lead from the front and provide a valuable batting spine to the lower middle order.
Underrated coach Tim Coyle has had the broom out during the off-season, clearing some clutter from the Tigers’ dressing room.
He’s delisted the likes of misfiring quicks Brendan Drew and Ben Laughlin as well as cutting chaff from the batting order in the shape of Nick Kruger, Ashton May and Jon Wells.
In their place, the Tigers have drafted in a number of recycled players from other states including Aidan Blizzard (South Australia) and Ben Dunk (Queensland).
Whether either has the impact of an Ed Cowan or Jackson Bird – which is what the Tigers must be hoping for – remains to be seen.
Promising young ‘keeper Tom Triffitt has moved to WA seeking further opportunities, but in his place the Tigers will play Tim Paine and need him to rediscover the form of three seasons’ back if the decision to let Triffitt drift west is to be looked on favourably come April next year.
Perennial underdogs, the Tigers have proved during the last couple of seasons they’re never far from the mark and with the likes of Cowan, George Bailey, Mark Cosgrove and Ricky Ponting making up the top order won’t be without a show again in 2012-13.
Need to find plenty of wickets out of all-rounders Luke Butterworth and James Faulkner with Test star Ben Hilfenhaus likely to be absent for much of the domestic season.
There’s enough talent across the board for the Warriors to challenge for the Shield, but there’s the small matter of temperament that can never be underestimated and may cost them from time to time, too.
Mitchell Johnson appears to be fit but not exactly firing again and nobody except Shaun Marsh really knows which Shaun Marsh will be under the yellow helmet this year.
The younger Marsh, Mitchell, should continue to develop as an all-round weapon while veterans like Marcus North and Adam Voges will be keen for plenty of runs at state level now their international careers look to be shot.
Nathan Coulter-Nile and Nathan RImmington will spearhead an attack that turns to Michael Beer for balance.
Won’t always play well away from home, so it’s doubly important for the Warriors to fill their boots on their home track.
Brad Hodge is no longer a Bushranger and the impact his loss will have on the Victorians may well be great.
That said, there’s a load of international talent in the squad and good balance across the board.
Obviously, the Bushrangers will be strongest with their stars on board, but could well be without James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, David Hussey and Matthew Wade for much of the summer, leaving the task of winning points to their less known players.
Glenn Maxwell and Rob Quiney need big years to consolidate their progress last summer and continue their rise in international calculations. If Aaron Finch can rediscover his best form the Bushrangers look to have a strong top order.
John Hastings is back from injury and should be a valuable re-addition while Clint McKay and Jayde Herrick, although unfashionable, can do damage with the new rock.
Won’t be far behind Queensland in the run for a home final.
Will have pulled off the coup of the winter if new recruit Phil Hughes brings his A-game to the Adelaide Oval.
Hughes is a huge talent and is still developing, but his game has looked so fragile at times in the past his recruitment can only ever be considered a risky proposition.
Johan Botha may be an even bigger catch for the Redbacks, the South African so well regarded in Adelaide that he’s been installed as captain before being capped for the state.
Michael Klinger’s willingness to let this happen speaks volumes of his ‘team first’ approach, but it may also mean he’s not far from retirement – a move that will come as a blow to SA given his standing as their number one player last season.
Callum Ferguson and Dan Christian both have to stand up and prove their class over the course of the four-day season if the Redbacks are to do much better than linger around the bottom of the table again this year.
New South Wales
It’s only a guess, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that things aren’t exactly peachy inside the NSW Blues camp.
Stuart Clark, Nathan Hauritz, Phil Hughes, Phil Jaques, Simon Katich, Usman Khawaja and Brett Lee have either retired, moved interstate or inexplicably refused a new contract with the Blues, seeing them shed hundreds of games in experience as well as massive firepower with both bat and ball.
Their remaining gun players in Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Pat Cummins, Dave Warner and Mitchell Starc won’t be available very often, either, meaning it’s going to be the state’s famed depth and youth that drags them above the bottom of the table this season.
Trent Copeland and Doug Bollinger will need support with the ball and it should come in the form of Scott Coyte and Josh Hazlewood, but it’s with the bat where they look at their thinnest.
Kurtis Patterson made a century on debut last season and the Blues powerbrokers will be praying for his star to continue rising; the same can be said for Nic Maddinson.
Worrying, however, will be the Blues’ reliance on the likes of Steve Smith, Ben Rohrer and Moises Henriques for regular middle-order runs.
The most powerful state in Shield history should never be written off, but 2012-13 looms as one of its most testing seasons in recent times.
Post script: If you’re one of those people who hasn’t been to a Sheffield Shield match recently, do yourself a favour and get out there to one ASAP.
Entry is free, they serve beer and more often than not you’ll be watching blokes who wouldn’t necessarily be out of place at international level.
Photo Source: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images AsiaPac