Heading into the Marsh Sheffield Shield final, the battle between Victoria’s red-hot seam bowling outfit and the Western Australia batter recently recalled after a dramatic drop in first-class form seemingly loomed as a lopsided fight.
The pace attack of Will Sutherland, Mitch Perry and Fergus O’Neill that had been supplemented at summer’s end by Test cult hero Scott Boland had taken their team to the title decider with five straight outright wins, in which Victoria had claimed 100 of a possible 100 opposition wickets.
By contrast, the retirement of WA legend Shaun Marsh a fortnight before season’s end, coupled with the absence of four first-choice players in India for Australia’s ODI tour saw the reigning champions reinstate their limited-overs skipper Ashton Turner whose red-ball days were thought to be done.
After all, Turner had been selected for just four Shield games over the preceding four summers in which he’d managed 24 runs at an average of four (with a highest score of six).
And in his comeback game a week before this year’s final – also against Victoria at the WACA Ground – he battled to find fluency in his batting, scoring 27 from 69 balls (stumped) and 20 from 82 (caught behind) as the visitors stormed to a seven-wicket win.
So when the 30-year-old went to the wicket on Friday afternoon with WA on the ropes at 4-53 having lost three wickets for the addition of a single run across the preceding 10 overs, Victoria must have felt the final was falling their way.
Five and a half hours later, when Turner was dismissed for a career-high 128 and his team had turned a 142-run deficit into a 95-run advantage, the balance of the game had shifted as markedly as the former Australia ODI batter’s first-class fortunes.
“You try and take the emotion out of it and play on skill, and I had a clear game plan,” Turner said of his counter-punching innings that set WA on track to retaining their Shield title, resuming today with Victoria 6-122 in their second innings and just two runs ahead.
“I want to stick to that plan as best I can and it’s the opposition’s job to try and drag me away from that game plan.
“For a period there I felt like I was able to score freely, but the flip side of that was there were periods when scoring was challenging and they bowled nicely so it was hard work out there.”
While his recent record at first-class level provided graphic evidence as to why others had been preferred in WA’s all-conquering Shield line-up, Turner had been quietly rebuilding his red-ball credentials in the background prior to his late-season call-up.
Scores of 81, 85, 167 and 24 for WA’s second XI were interspersed with totals of 108, 69, 115 and 178 for his Premier Cricket club Fremantle meaning that, while he might have entered his first Shield final devoid of direct credentials, he held no such paucity of belief.
Turner admits watching his WA squad mates break a 23-year Shield-winning drought last summer, having himself led the state’s limited-overs outfits to triumphs in the Marsh One Day Cup and KFC BBL competitions (as he’s done again this season) provided a measure of motivation.
But after a decade of senior cricket during which time he played 27 white-ball internationals for Australia, he is sufficiently pragmatic to recognise competition for places in WA’s Shield XI had become so tough, he understood why he was so regularly overlooked.
“There’s definitely stages when I thought my red-ball career had passed me by,” he said last night.
“I feel like we’ve got so many players in form, so many guys playing well that deserve their spots and that’s part of the environment we’ve tried to create here in Western Australia.
“We want to have a lot of pressure on for spots, and there’s probably been times in the past if we go back seven, eight, ten years when there hasn’t been as much pressure and guys have been gifted games at times.
“It was a conscious effort for us as a squad to evolve and improve, and get to a point where we’ve got really good players missing out across all three formats.
“That’s the scenario at the moment and it sucks if it’s you not playing, but there’s also a bit of perspective and guys buying into what we’re trying to create here.”
The other element of fortuitous timing to potentially work in Turner’s favour is one he could not have foreseen.
Having carried all before them across the preceding five matches, Victoria’s pace bowling arsenal was beginning to show signs of duress on the eve of the summer’s most important game.
In addition to the back complaint that plagued Sutherland during his heroic 5-75 in WA’s first innings – making him just the second bowler (after current teammate Jon Holland) to claim a five-for in consecutive Shield finals – and which forced him from the field during day three, other cracks appeared.
Victoria coach Chris Rogers declined to detail those issues, but the fact Perry (chosen in the recent Australia A squad on the strength of his 2022-23 results) and O’Neill (described by his coach pre-game as “an absolute find”) returned combined first innings figures of 1-153 indicates something misfired.
“There was a couple of little things that popped up just after the last game that we hadn’t seen,” Rogers said last night when asked how his bowlers were holding up at summer’s end.
“It’s been a huge effort by this group, to win five games on the bounce to get into a Shield final.
“We couldn’t put a foot wrong, and it’s been carried a lot by that seam attack.
“Then a couple of little things started to happen before this game, it was almost like we played our grand final last week against WA but we still felt if things went our way we were going to be a really good chance (in the final).
‘I think we’ve played a good game at times, but we’ve come up against some exceptional opposition as well.”
Rogers refused to concede his men were staring at outright defeat, claiming if incumbent pair Sutherland (40no off 39 balls despite his ailment) and Perry (7no off 30 balls after batting almost four hours in last year’s final) can push Victoria to a three-figure lead then hope may beckon.
“I think anything over 100 at least gives us something to bowl to,” Rogers said.
“We could at least put 30-40 overs together, but we would need everything to go our way.”
According to Rogers, such a shift in fortunes would be overdue for his team after Victoria’s bowlers beat the outside edge of WA bats 40 times during the hosts’ first innings which he claimed was “quite extraordinary, really”.
And he cited the top-edged hook shot Turner aimed at Perry just nine runs into his game-changing innings, which cleared the boundary rope not far to the right of fine leg fielder Todd Murphy, might have altered the match’s trajectory in a different direction had it gone to hand.
“I know it will sound a bit shallow, but we don’t feel we’ve had a lot of luck in this game,” Rogers said.
“If a couple of those things go your way, a few edges you find and then it’s a very different game.”
However, upon hearing the lament that things had not fallen in Victoria’s favour throughout the final, Turner gave it similarly short shrift as he did the bouncer that yielded the bowler-dominated game’s one and only six to date.
“If you sit back and critique every ball that’s bowled, and you think about if a ball was two millimetres this way or that way from the edge of the bat, or a thick edge goes to gully (that) could go to third slip, you’ll go insane,” he said.
The Marsh Sheffield Shield final will be broadcast live on Fox Cricket and Kayo Sports, as well as live streamed free on cricket.com.au and the CA Live app.
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