Daniel Brettig in Melbourne
For all the uncharted territory navigated by Australian cricket in 2018, there will be a sense of loss and gain about Boxing Day in a way very relevant to the state that hosts the MCG. For, the first Melbourne Test that will be lacking the commentary of Bill Lawry in 40 years will also be the first time two Victorian batsmen have walked out as openers in 45.
While Aaron Finch and Marcus Harris have contrasting stories, techniques and top hands, their arrival together to begin Australia’s first innings will reflect the recent evolution of Victoria from a successful state system to one that is also churning out players chosen for the national team. No fewer than five players – Finch, Harris, Peter Handscomb, Peter Siddle and Chris Tremain – were part of the initial Australian squad for this series.
Not since December 1973, when Keith Stackpole and Paul Sheahan put on 75 on day one of a victory over New Zealand, has Victoria provided two men at the top of the order in Melbourne, a drought that has summed up the often sporadic contribution the state has made to the national team amid unrivalled competition for talent, from Australian Rules football in particular. Lawry, of course, had been a fixture in the opening spot for most of the previous decade, often walking out to bat with the pugnacious Stackpole, or the more obdurate Ian Redpath.
Since then, only Matthew Elliott among Victorians has opened the batting for Australia for any length of time, his one and only Boxing Day ending with a pair of low scores against South Africa in 1997. Over the same period, the Victorian cricket public has been known for a sense of injustice about players who, in their view, were discarded too early [Dean Jones] or never given the sort of run offered to others [Brad Hodge].
At the same time, other states have been known to quibble at how the nation’s second most populous state slipped behind Western Australia, and then Queensland, as a greenhouse for batting talent. They did so even as they envied, and even feared, the construction of a tight, combative, and broadly successful Victorian state system from about the time the late John Scholes became coach towards the end of the 1990s. Followed as coach by David Hookes, Greg Shipperd, David Saker, and now Andrew McDonald, Scholes ended a period of politicking and division in the state that had seen the Shield-winning team of 1990-91 spin off far fewer major international careers than expected.
By the time a teenaged Harris first faced Victoria as a West Australian stripling in 2011, the team then known as the Bushrangers were known for abrasiveness but also unity. “When we played against Victoria, as a WA person it’s the team where you go, ‘I hate playing against them, they really get stuck into you, they’re the hardest team to play against’, and everyone’s in awe of them a little bit, almost to the point where people are scared of them,” he told ESPNcricinfo.
“Victoria in a cricket sense would bully teams, and the opportunity to play with them and be a part of that was sort of like, ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’. The group they had at the time when I got offered to come over was a pretty senior group and it sorted where I was in my career and something I wanted to be a part of.”
“I’ve found in the two-and-a-bit years of being here I’ve learned so much about my game. Not so much through … yes, I’ve had good coaches, but more from playing with experienced guys, watching how they go about it, how they play, how they train and that’s what’s been beneficial to me.”
Asked to nominate his chief antagonists, Harris reeled off a considerable list, led predictably by Matthew Wade. “I used to hate playing against Wadey, then I found as soon as I came to Victoria, he was the bloke I got along with just about the best,” he said. “Finchy used to always give it to you, Pete Handscomb used to give it to you, but I found that when you play for Victoria, they don’t go out of their way [to get at you], they don’t talk about it in the pre-match, that’s just the way they are, and it’s sort of addictive.
“I think you see with the Vics when we get on a roll in a series or a tournament, it’s like a juggernaut, you have this whole team coming at you and you feel really under the pump as an opposition team, so I’ve fed off that a little bit. By no means am I as vocal as any of those guys, but it is just how Victorians play and I really love it.”
Equally, however, Harris was able to find a way to work amongst the rest, finding that his youth, ability and yappy countenance were not only accepted but respected by the rest. An innings of 158 against Victoria in his final season with Western Australia played a large part in raising Harris’ attractiveness to the state, where coaches and selectors took delight in turning around the parting words of Justin Langer that “our system isn’t for everyone” by showing that in Victoria, all could indeed succeed.
“I’ve found in the two-and-a-bit years of being here I’ve learned so much about my game,” Harris said. “Not so much through … yes, I’ve had good coaches, but more from playing with experienced guys, watching how they go about it, how they play, how they train and that’s what’s been beneficial to me.
“To be around guys like Finchy and Whitey and Sidds [Siddle] and Patto [James Pattinson], you don’t even realise you’re learning at the time. It’s only when you look back and think ‘oh that’s what they were doing and now I’m starting to do that’. That’s probably the main thing. The coaches are there to help you and support you. Fortunately, I had Lachy Stevens there as well, who I had in WA, so I didn’t come into a completely foreign environment where I didn’t know anyone, and Lachy was very good for me to help me transition into that, and he’s a really good coach.
“So I was lucky with that. The environment is just one of those good ones, where you know you have to do well and you have that sort of pressure on you, but it drives you to be successful. When you’re in a team that’s successful, I think you find a way to perform. It’s not easier to perform, but you have that drive within you.”
Harris, of course, has been able to grow as a batsman and a team contributor in the intervening two-and-a-half seasons since his move. When he was heard tempting India’s wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant from short leg during the second Test by saying that if he got out in the fourth day’s final over, he could enjoy “a good circuit on a Monday night in Perth”, there could not only be seen local knowledge from his youth, but also the search for competitive edge reflected by his adopted state.
“That was just me being a smart a*** really, but we had a good chat during the Test about being respectful but still having a crack and being an Aussie and not giving as good as you get, but still getting stuck in and doing it respectfully,” Harris said. “There’s definitely room for a bit of chat or banter, if that’s what people want to call it.
“Do anything to try to get them off their guard a little bit. If they understand what I’m saying, it might work, but there’s probably every chance they’re not. But that’s all part of cricket, and sometimes, it can help in them losing their focus for long enough to maybe get them out.”
As for Finch, his far longer road to a Test cap has been punctuated by plenty of wrong turns and false starts, but the concerted shift of Victoria from a state principally concerned with winning trophies to one that has mastered both the talent pathway and competition-driven elements of the domestic system has had plenty of benefit for the 32-year-old from the southwestern regional town of Colac.
“Graffy’s less grumpy than he was when I first started!” Finch joked of the longtime Victoria cricket manager Shaun Graf when asked what had changed in the state. “The Junction’s an amazing project and something that was in the pipeline for so long. It’s just a fantastic place to be, such a learning environment. In days gone by, the competitiveness of the Vics, the accountability everyone’s held each other to has made everyone stronger, and I think there’s no better way than measuring the Shields to see that.
“It’s a great reward for Victorian cricket being so strong over the last few years. The amount of Shields we’ve won over the past 10-12 years has been amazing and just reward in these selections. Marcus Harris has been banging down the door for a couple of years now since he made the move from WA, Pete Handscomb’s been a dominant run-scorer in international cricket when he’s played in the past.
“Sidds has been a world-class performer for years now, and Trem [Chris Tremain] as well – 50 wickets every year – it’s a pretty extraordinary record he’s had in Shield cricket, Jonny Holland in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Victorian cricket’s been in a really good space for the last couple of years, and I think a lot of that is down to a great pathway and management of players as well, with Graffy and Andrew Lynch, Andrew McDonald, Shippy, David Saker. Everyone’s played a huge part in the development of a lot of players, and I think the rewards at Australian level are just starting to come through.”
Having set that early platform at the MCG 45 years ago, Stackpole and Sheahan only played one more Test together, the latter’s last, as the national selectors began to look elsewhere for top order batting options. Finch and Harris will hope they have more Boxing Days to share, but even if they don’t, the state that supports them is in the sort of shape to ensure it won’t be another 45 years before two Victorian openers walk out together onto the MCG.