After a frustrating season strewn with stress fractures and workload restrictions, Xavier Bartlett has stepped out of the substantial shadow cast by his bigger-name fast bowling teammates to become Queensland’s strike weapon, even if it is for a limited time only.
With opening pair Michael Neser and Mark Steketee absent from this week’s Marsh Sheffield Shield game in Adelaide, Bartlett stepped into the breach by claiming 3-11 in a remarkable first session yesterday before finishing South Australia’s first innings with 4-64.
The 23-year-old narrowly missed a five-for in his default role as leader of the attack, as the Bulls eventually dismissed SA for 240 and finished day two 2-88 with opener Joe Burns 49no and eyeing a landmark score to celebrate his 100th Shield appearance for the Bulls.
Burns looms as the mainstay of a radically revamped Queensland top-order that includes opener Bryce Street (16), number three Sam Truloff (15) and Sam Heazlett in their first Shield matches of the season.
And even though Burns’s unbeaten overnight partner Jack Clayton (8no) has been part of Queensland’s middle-order all season after announcing himself with a Shield century on debut against Victoria last summer, he has yet to reach 20 in his five innings of the current campaign .
With so many new faces in the Bulls’ line-up, Bartlett admits it was slightly daunting to take the new ball on Sunday morning with all 10 Redbacks wickets intact rather than come on as first change behind the dominant duo with four or five wickets already down as has so often been the case of late.
“Having two blokes like that leaves some big shoes to fill, but it’s nice to have the responsibility to step up and we didn’t do too badly,” Bartlett said at the end of another wintry Adelaide day where four separate rain delays saw the loss of 15 overs.
“I got a return caught and bowled yesterday morning which was almost a bit of a cheapy, but you’ve got to take them when they come because some days you’ll bowl beautifully and don’t get many wickets.
“It’s something I want to do in the future, take the new ball.
“But in the meantime, I’ve got two pretty good blokes to learn off in Ness and Steks, so I’ll just help out when I can and when they’re away I can hopefully step up.”
In the course of a single innings, Bartlett doubled his wicket tally for a season in which the phenomenal success of Neser (24 wickets at 11.83) and Steketee (23 at 13.86) has meant he’s been reduced to the role of support act.
He reveled in that opportunity to take the new ball with Neser and Steketee preparing for the PM’s XI fixture in Canberra and made an immediate impact by snaring the wickets of Jake Carder (4), Daniel Drew (0) and Nathan McSweeney (0) in his opening spell yesterday.
He also came within a fingertip of the second five-wicket haul of his 14-match first-class career, when a reflex grab at a return catch offered by SA’s last man Brendan Doggett this afternoon failed to stick in his right claw.
However, with 4-64 from 28 overs on a pitch that offered little for the seamers beyond the first session and in conditions that saw the ball regularly doused on the rain-drenched outfield, Bartlett can be well satisfied with his cameo role as leader of the Bulls attack.
“I had a bit of an up and down year last year with some workloads (restrictions) and some stress fractures so it was a bit of a frustrating year,” he said.
“But it’s been a nice start this year to string a few games together and I feel like I’m in a good spot at the moment, and the rhythm’s quite good.”
In what has been another season so far devoid of memorable moments for SA, they can take pride in the scale of their recovery after a day one disaster in which they were reduced to 5-25 shortly before lunch.
In reaching a total of 240 more than a day later, the Redbacks can claim the second-highest Shield score by teams who have lost the top half of their batting order for the cumulative addition of 25 runs or less.
The benchmark remains Tasmania when hosting the Shield final of 2012-13 – also against Queensland – when they were at grave risk of squandering their 194-run first innings lead by crashing to 5-15 in the second, before rallying to post 251 and lift the trophy.
The Redbacks might have been privy to some of the strategies employed in that game given current members of their coaching staff Luke Butterworth and Mark Cosgrove were part of that Tasmania line-up.
Another point of commonality was ‘keeper Tim Paine and bowling all-rounder James Faulkner were the heroes of that fightback, while for SA it was gloveman Harry Nielsen (90) and all-rounder Nathan McAndrew (46 not out) who lifted their team from near oblivion to beyond 200.
Nielsen’s innings shone like a distress beacon across the best part of two cold and gloomy days in Adelaide, and he was understandably disappointed when he fell 10 runs shy of what would have been the third hundred of his 33-match first-class career.
The left-hander went to the wicket shortly before lunch on day one at the fall of the fifth wicket and endured more than five hours (including four rain interruptions) in which he faced 235 deliveries.
But it was the resumption after lunch today that seemed to impact his concentration most markedly, as he was dropped at second slip off Bartlett on 89 before looping a catch to mid-wicket off the same bowler soon after from a delivery that seemed to hold up in the pitch.
“When I look back on when I’ve batted well, it has been when the team has been in a little bit of trouble,” Nielsen said this evening.
“For some reason that brings the best out of me, and obviously we don’t want 5-25 every week but I’m really proud to dig in and bat for a while and get us to a reasonable total.
“This morning the chat was we were just trying to get really hard to get to 200 and anything past that was a bonus.
“It was hard work yesterday morning for the first couple of hours, as it always is out here but then gets a bit easier when that ball gets 40 to 50 overs old.
“It was slow going for a while but we hung in there and ended up on 240, and a couple of early wickets tomorrow and we’re right back in it”
Nielsen and McAndrew had added 97 for the eighth wicket after Ben Manenti fell without addition to SA’s overnight score, and then McAndrew found another ally in Wes Agar (21 off 25 balls) before Mitchell Swepson switched to the southern end and claimed the final two wickets .
The manner in which SA’s lower-order had been able to defy a Queensland seam attack so dominant on the first morning suggested there was few demons in the Adelaide pitch despite its regular dustings of rain, and that was borne out by the Queensland openers.
Burns, the only member of the Queensland team to have experienced that Shield final comeback of a decade ago, was the dominant partner in the 52-run opening stand with Street.
Street’s circumspection could be explained by the fact it’s his first Shield game for the summer, having surrendered his place to reinstated opener Matthew Renshaw at the start of the season but he looked to be finding his tempo before he edged Manenti to slip.
Then Truloff, who had also got himself into stride with consecutive boundaries off Agar, fended a short ball to bat-pad where Thomas Kelly snatched a spectacular one-handed catch diving to his left.
However, with Renshaw also absent on PM’s XI duties and fellow top-order batters Usman Khawaja (Test preparation) and Marnus Labuschagne (Dettol ODI Series) missing, the Bulls’ other auxiliary batters have been granted a rare chance to push their cases.
And to try and make hay in those occasional bursts when the sun shines.