Review by John Polack
Through recent times, it is difficult to recall a more unusual season of domestic cricket in Australia than the one with which we were presented in 1999-2000. A fundamental break with 107 years of tradition; a record for the most number of wins by a team in a single first class campaign; and a corresponding record for the biggest number of defeats by a side in the one season, all featured prominently on the list in a summer which was laden with surprises. Add to that the spectres of a captain collapsing to the ground in one match; a different skipper openly incurring the stinging wrath of some of his own players in another; and of each of the States finding insufficient inspiration to raise the concluding matches to a level anything above the maudlin and anticlimactic, and the extent to which summer's events departed from the customary does not become too difficult to discern.
Above all else, the 1999-2000 season will probably be remembered for the Australian Cricket Board (ACB)'s shock decision in mid-November to abandon more than a century of convention and discard the name 'Sheffield Shield' under (and for) which the States had competed at first class level since as distant a time ago as 1892-93. For a long period, the dwindling crowd numbers at first class matches in Australia have posed a substantial problem for the ACB; the Board finally responded this year by concluding that the attraction to the competition of a major naming rights sponsor was a prudent solution. To that end, what was almost literally an overnight switch to the 'Pura Milk Cup' carried with it no connotations of second thoughts (even if many among the nation's cricket fans did not find it in themselves to agree) from Australia's cricket administrators. Years from now, the name change might be seen as nothing more than a sound commercial decision made in the best interests of the competition and its survival. But in the short term, there was no escaping the notion that the alteration proved a bitter pill for more than just a mere few in the country's cricketing community to swallow.
On the field of play itself, Queensland was the dominant team this summer. Save for two serious lapses in the space of six days in Perth (one of which unfortunately happened to come in the Mercantile Mutual Cup Final), its pre-eminence was rarely challenged and it gloriously avenged the acute disappointment which resulted from its Shield Final loss twelve months earlier. In fact, it is likely that this season would have been painted as one that struggled to touch any great heights at any stage at all if it had not been for the Bulls' intervention. There was the odd occasion on which a match finished in spectacular style - the South Australia-Western Australia and Victoria-Western Australia contests in Adelaide and Melbourne each loom large in the memory in this respect - but clearly the most striking feature of the summer's play as a whole was the bedazzling run of success that the Queenslanders conceived. Eight outright wins came from their ten preliminary first class matches against the other States; a draw was comfortably achieved in the Final to ensure they duly claimed the spanking new trophy; and runner-up status was achieved in the Mercantile Mutual Cup. That they also comprehensively defeated touring teams India and Pakistan along the way only served to underline the extent of their brilliance.
At the other end of the spectrum, the once mighty New South Wales felt the impact of surrendering a large batch of players to the national team more keenly than it had ever done before. As many as eight outright defeats later, the Blues had never in their history been at an ebb lower than the one to which they had descended by the end of the season. Certainly, they seemed from the outside to be no closer to solving the now very considerable problem of determining from where their next group of star players is coming.
In between, Victoria and Western Australia again filled the other places in the top half of the first class table, and the latter (despite being encumbered by a series of injury-related problems to some of its more talented players) also claimed the interstate one-day crown by winning the Mercantile Mutual Cup. South Australia continued to acquit itself determinedly but it was never really able to stamp itself as a true contender for either title. Tasmania was affected by some major changes in the off-season and then squandered most of the limited opportunities it was afforded to nudge itself further up either set of rankings.
But for all of the unprecedented tinkerings to the competition's core and the similarly atypical ups and downs of the various States, Australian domestic cricket continued this summer to serve its single most important function with exactly the same high degree of proficiency that it has done for most of its history. Again indeed, its very high quality was reflected in its capacity to act as the perfect breeding ground for aspiring international cricketers. The likes of Brett Lee, Damien Martyn, Andrew Symonds, Matthew Hayden and Shane Lee, by way of example, all made a seamless transition from State to international cricket this season. Moreover, a number of them played prominent roles in assisting their country to mount record winning streaks in both Test matches and one-day internationals. Even more frighteningly for Australia's overseas rivals perhaps, there are numerous others (Matthew Elliott, Simon Katich, Darren Lehmann, Jamie Cox, Andy Bichel, Adam Dale, Michael Kasprowicz and Stuart MacGill chief among them) who could doubtless do the same but yet remain starved of opportunities. It would most certainly be wrong indeed to draw the conclusion that Australia's domestic empire remains anything other than as powerful as it has ever done, even if such a view might tend to be encouraged by the notion that it no longer parades in quite the same clothing.
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