Saturday Serve – Sheffield Shield still has an important place in Australian cricket

Hands up those who have seen a Sheffield Shield game this year?

Well done to the 100 diehards who answered in the affirmative.

It's a limited window of opportunity for those of us who live in Canberra, but I wouldn't expect much of a different response if I asked the same question in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth or Hobart.

Domestic first-class cricket in Australia is the one professional sport where crowd numbers are irrelevant.

The importance of the competition is instead judged by the performance of the Australian Test team.

Right now, after a 5-0 thumping of England in the Ashes and a gutsy 2-1 series victory in South Africa, the fortunes of Michael Clarke and his merry men are at the highest point they have been for some time.

Bringing the Shield final to Canberra is something of an accidental masterstroke.

It could be argued bigger crowds will wander through Manuka Oval, with the gates thrown open at the behest of Cricket Australia, over the five days of competition than what the game would have drawn if it was held in Sydney.

The SCG would have hosted the match, but was unavailable because of the Major League Baseball series between the LA Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A fixture of this calibre, featuring a dozen players with international experience, is a novelty for an ACT sporting public crying out for high-quality entertainment.

The Friday to Tuesday time slot will ensure a decent roll up over the weekend, with junior cricket finished for the season and fans able to wander in and out as they please.

Friday's opening day drew a crowd of a couple of thousand, an impressive amount on a work day, as NSW grinded its way through on a pitch made for batting.

Needing a draw to secure the trophy for the first time since 2007-08, this is all the Blues have to do.

There was a suggestion from a fellow journalist in the media box that the final be extended until as long as there was a result, as was the case of the timeless Tests.

If that was the case, it would probably prevent the dour way the Blues played on the opening day.

Logistically, it would be a nightmare.

There's also the argument the match has already been extended an extra day to give the visiting team a chance to push for the victory.

Speaking at the State Cricket Awards at Manuka Oval on Wednesday, Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland told the audience that state cricket costs the organisation $40million annually.

Those immense losses are recouped by the revenue generated by the Australian team.

The Big Bash League has the potential to be a money-spinner in the future after Channel 10 signed a lucrative deal to broadcast the tournament.

There is also money to be made from showing the game in India and other overseas markets.

Bumper crowds and TV ratings have sparked questions why the BBL does not expand its six-week season into something more substantial.

The main stumbling block is finding room in the crowded calendar.

Reducing rounds of the Sheffield Shield is an option that has been mooted, but the players are firmly against that proposal as it would diminish their chances to push for spots in the Test team.

Wearing the baggy green is still the ultimate goal among every Australian who plays the game.

Sure, there are Twenty20 mercenaries like pace firebrand Shaun Tait who only play the shortest format, but those are few and far between.

The national one-day competition, the Ryobi Cup, is the one under threat.

This season it was squeezed into a month-long tournament held entirely in Sydney.

Where the 50-over game fits into the grander scheme of things will be determined after next year's World Cup.

It is clear its appeal is not what it used to be, with Twenty20 taking over its share of the market.

The strength of the Sheffield Shield is clearly reflected in the fortunes of the Test team.

Take Ryan Harris, for example.

After toiling away in the domestic scene for many years, the man known as Ryno has become one of the true warriors for Australia.

Without a viable state competition where he could make a handy living while still playing at a high level, he could have easily given the game away in his mid-20s.

Instead, he has been able to progress steadily and evolve into one of the world's best fast bowlers.

His performance to take the final two wickets in the final Test in South Africa with time getting away was simply unbelievable.

Then there's Alex Doolan, another solid performer who has learnt his craft in the Shield before making the transition to the Test arena.

The Sheffield Shield is a necessary evil.

Cricket Australia could save a substantial amount of money without its existence, but would then put the performance of the Australian team at risk if it was to disappear.

That's a scenario no cricket fan wants to contemplate.

The story Saturday Serve – Sheffield Shield still has an important place in Australian cricket first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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