We’re going to quotients
Three rounds out from the qualifying finals, the top end of the First Grade competition table is so badly congested that it seems inevitable that the last couple of places will be decided by quotients. Bankstown looks comfortably placed at the top, six points clear of Penrith and Sydney, with premiers Manly surging up to 41 and Campbelltown on 40. But then it gets really interesting, with six teams on 36 (and Easts on 35). This should create some interesting tactical decisions over the next few weeks – is it better, for example, for a side batting first to lose wickets trying to add quick runs late in the day, or bat more sedately and not damage its for-and-against? Adding thirty runs while three wickets fall might give the bowlers more runs to defend, but adding fifteen runs without losing a wicket improves the quotient. In practice, teams very rarely think like this – they play to win, and let quotients take care of themselves. But if (as seems very possible), someone misses out on the finals by 0.09 on quotient, it will be hard to resist looking back at places where that extra few runs might have been found.
Manly isn’t going quietly
Current premiers, Manly, had a dismal start to the season, losing its first three matches. But in Round 12, Manly firmly grasped a top-four place by accounting easily for Sydney, who had led the table for so much of the season. Manly’s top five – Jack Ritchie, James and Adam Crosthwaite, Ahillen Beadle and Jay Lenton, is efficiently productive, while Beadle, Michael Visser and Nick McLachlan have led the attack. Manly is starting – at the right end of the season – to resemble the ruthless side that claimed last season’s title.
Jono Cook can bat, too
Last round we mentioned how well Wests’ new recruit, Jonathan Cook, has performed with the ball this season, and the leg spinner’s four wickets against Bankstown gave him 16 from his four games since Christmas. On Saturday, he went in to bat at five for 124, with Wests only fifty ahead in its second innings and Bankstown headed for an outright victory. In just over two hours, Cook hammered three sixes and 13 fours, adding 197 with Chris Ridley (110 not out) and reaching his first century in Sydney First Grade. He seems to think it’s quite an easy game at the moment.
Don’t expect bowlers to break many records this season
Last year, Manly’s Nick McLachlan was the leading bowler in First Grade with 50 wickets; the season before, it was Sydney University’s Nigel Cowell with 62. With three rounds remaining before the finals, the leading bower in First Grade is Easts’ spinner Shane Devoy, who has 32 victims so far. Even though in theory he could play six more games, it seems highly unlikely that he’ll get to fifty wickets. In fact, generally, this is shaping up as the bleakest season for bowlers since 1989-90, when rain reduced the number of days played to such an extent that no-one managed more than 37 wickets. Of the fifty leading wicket-takers in First Grade, almost one-third have bowling averages above thirty, and two have averages over forty. Conclusion: it has not been a great vintage for bowlers.
Selections get interesting now
This time of year raises complicated selection problems, as clubs do their best to get the strongest teams possible qualified for the finals. Usually, this means that a player needs to play three of the last five games in a particular grade (or a lower one). With that in mind, and without suggesting that any club would do anything dishonourable or unfair, it’s time to consider the teams most likely to be stacked. Take, for example, Western Suburbs’ Thirds – a team that has performed extremely well this season and sits in fourth place. Let’s suppose that next week, someone in that side hits 160 not out – is there any chance that he’ll be promoted to Wests’ Seconds, who are currently 19th? Similar questions will trouble Penrith’s selectors – there’s not much incentive to promote a player from Fourth Grade (who are fourth) to Thirds (18th). And Randwick’s Fifth Grade (sixth) will be in no hurry to lift players in Fourths (16th). Equal problems arise, of course, in clubs who are in contention in three or four grades, where there’s a need to balance fielding the best possible teams with the need to qualify enough players for each final.