It was easy to get an idea of where New South Wales and South Australia sit in cricketing esteem by listening to their captains being quizzed on the eve of the Matador Cup final.
Steven Smith, leader of NSW and Australia, was peppered with questions about the looming Tests with New Zealand, the state of his sore knee, the problematic pink ball and only a couple of queries relating to the domestic limited-overs decider. Travis Head, by contrast, was asked largely about SA’s underdog status and how this unheralded team had emerged as the best development story of the Cup despite the inclusion of a youth-focused Cricket Australia XI.
At 26, Smith is now an experienced customer on high profile occasions. At 21, Head has probably never seen more television cameras than he did this day. The Blues, led by Smith with the bat and the ravenous Mitchell Starc with the ball, are expected to swat the Redbacks aside at North Sydney Oval. But Head and his coach Jamie Siddons know their young collective have already made giant strides in the space of just two weeks.
For one, they twice unseated a seasoned Victoria to earn qualification for the elimination final and then the decider itself. Given that the Bushrangers had themselves inflicted the Blues’ only defeat of this tournament, there is reason for SA to be optimistic. As Head put it, Smith’s XI are “only human” after all, and the Redbacks still have plenty of room for improvement.
“It’s going to be a hard task tomorrow with the New South Wales team so strong,” Head said. “We probably came into the tournament keeping a pretty low profile and knowing the work we did in Adelaide was holding us in good stead for the tournament, we’ve played exactly how we wanted to play, we’ve been positive and taken the game on.
“We probably haven’t put together the perfect game yet with bat or ball – the bowlers have been fantastic throughout, the batters probably have had their moments of really good stuff but been a little inconsistent, so we’re looking tomorrow to put the runs on the board or chase down whatever we can.”
Critical to the outcome will be Head’s personal duel with Starc, which was short yet decisive when the two sides met, also at North Sydney, during the qualifying games. That day Starc found swing and speed to strike Head’s off stump, and after a similar early dismissal to James Pattinson at Bankstown, Head resolved to give himself a few more sighters before throwing himself at the opposition fast men.
“He got the better of me the other day, yesterday facing Jimmy Pattinson I took my time a little bit and tried to keep it on the carpet,” Head said. “I’m still going to be positive and aggressive and still hunt the four ball but I’ll be watching him. I’m not going to change much, I’m trying to be positive at the top of the order, try to set the tone for the innings and hopefully get a big score – that’s what I’ll be trying to do.”
Smith’s tournament has seen him lead the Blues with impressive clarity of purpose, and he shrugged off a pair of ducks to fashion a century against Queensland before resting his knee against the Bushrangers. All the time he has been talking with the national selectors about the composition of the Test team to face New Zealand, but for now he wants to help deliver a first domestic one day crown to NSW in a decade.
“They’ve been looking pretty closely at the Matador over the past couple of weeks,” Smith said of the observational work put in by the chairman Rod Marsh and his panel. “It’s a different format but if you’re scoring runs you’re putting your name up there. There’s been some pretty good performances and we’ll wait and see what the selectors have for us in that first squad.
“I feel good where everything’s at at the moment, I feel like I’m hitting the ball well. I’d like a big score tomorrow and a win for NSW. We haven’t won this tournament in 10 years, so it’s a big one for us and I’m really excited about getting out to North Sydney Oval tomorrow.”
A win for NSW would confirm the primacy of a team that embodies Australian cricket’s present. An upset by the Redbacks would make a similarly compelling statement about the nation’s future.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig
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