The 2014 Australian Churches & Community Cricket Association National Championships couldn't have unfolded any better for our lads from the SA Churches & Community Cricket Association. All five matches won, including the final, tied for first place in the prestigious Errol Porter trophy for sportsmanship, three players and a manager nominated for all-Australian honours and everyone else performing admirably at different stages during the week.

These results were stunning; far beyond the expectations of any of the players, volunteers and officials that gave generously of their time to represent their state during the festive season. It must be said, however, that the outcomes were almost as hard-fought as they were stunning. Each and every match was an epic in itself, where the opposition threatened at various stages to grind victory from the South Australians, only for the home side to grit their teeth, hang on, and with a little bit of luck, snatch the triumph they so desperately desired. The whole five days were far from a walk in Park 25, they were dogged battles played out in the form of thrilling cricket.

The first match, on December 27, was a prime example. Taking on traditional rivals Churches Cricket Queensland, (who've also become fond friends with the South Australian lads during recent editions of the Championships) was a great way to kick off the title pursuit. The fact that the game unfolded as a tight tussle in which South Australia would triumph in warm sunny conditions on the best deck at Park 25 made it even better. Captain Ashley MacDonald won the toss and elected to bat, padding up Para Vista's Tim Hodson to open with the experience of NEK's Shaun Holland. The instruction was to see off as many overs as possible and both openers made a good fist of it, before a knick to the 'keeper saw Holland (11) trudging back to the clubhouse. Hodson, who had scored a little quicker would follow soon after for 26, and despite the best attempts of the middle order to make a start, South Australia found themselves reeling at 6/82, the demons of unsuccessful carnivals past threatening to haunt the home side in their first outing for 2014.
It would be a carnival newcomer that would mount a comeback, Mick Hauser from Adelaide Lutheran playing with the same cool and calm that dominates for the Bulldogs during the local competition, nudging his way to an unbeaten 41, and forming one half of vital partnerships with Marc Cossens (17) and Travis Uern (26).

Uern was particularly impressive, scoring quickly, but without slogging, and it would take a ripper ball from Queensland's Jeff Spalding to castle him. Jeff would go on to clean up the tail in quick time, South Australia dismissed for 171 inside 43 overs. The general feeling was that 171 might not be enough, but it was a total that SA fought hard to post, and a total their bowlers would fight even harder to defend.

Fitzroy's Michael Spry struck first; in his first over, removing a lad by the name of Adam Walker with an easy catch to 'keeper Cossens. It would only hit home in the next couple of days how important it was to grab the wicket of Walker and getting him early in the first match was just the start that SA required. Another wicket would not fall for some time in that innings, the Queensland batsmen chewing up a lot of overs for not many runs - they were mounting their chase as carefully as they should have. Travis Uern's bowling was exceptionally tight, as was that of Bulldog Matthew Nitschke and Lion Tyson Roling. It was only the introduction of Enfield's Matt Bedgegood (2/34) that would tempt the batsmen, grabbing two big wickets as the Queenslanders began to push the run-rate. Nitschke (1/47) and Spry (3/35) would also snare important poles, reducing CCAQ to 7/87, but the game wasn't done yet.

The Queensland tail wagged as well as their South Australian counterparts did in the first innings, pushing the game right to the brink. It was pure magic from Travis Uern that turned the encounter back into the home side's favour. A direct hit run-out removed Laurien Cheyne as the big Queenslander approached a half-century, and when Trav was brought back onto bowl, he began to take regular wickets. but it may have been too little too late.

Heading into the final over, Queensland needed two runs to win with one wicket in hand. Nobody was game to guess how the match would finish, but it didn't phase Uern (3/25), who promptly ran in with his first ball and skittled the Queensland number eleven. The South Australians had won by a solitary run, all the players were in raptures, Uern was easily man-of-the-match and the National Championships couldn't have kicked off with a better game.

SAC&CCA all out 171 from 43.5 overs (M.Hauser 41*, T.Hodson 26, T.Uern 26, S.Neal 25, J.Spalding 3/16, D.Spiers 3/54, J.Edey 2/28) defeated CCAQ all out 170 from 49.1 overs (L.Cheyne 49, D.Spiers 48, T.Uern 3/25, M.Spry 3/35, M.Bedgegood 2/34).

The second match shaped as a similar day's play for the South Australians, playing a highly fancied side on Park 25's number one oval, in warm sunny conditions, and captain Ashley MacDonald winning the toss and electing to bat. The opposition was Victoria's Western Suburbs Churches & Community Cricket Association, fresh from a narrow victory of their own the day before. A couple of changes to the line-up meant that Adelaide Lutheran's Finley Borgas replaced Hodson at the top of the order, partnering Holland for the opening stanza. Sadly, Holland's stay at the crease wasn't as extensive as all had hoped, copping a contentious LBW decision early and leaving Rose Park's Steve Neal and Borgas to see off the shiny ball, which they did with patience and concentration - traits that would become hallmarks of the South Australian batsmen during the Championships. The partnership between Neal (61) and Borgas (67) would surpass one hundred, both bringing up half-centuries within a few balls of each other and their knocks were a solid foundation from which the middle-order could chase quick runs in the late overs.

When Neal and Borgas were dismissed, and a couple of slight hiccups saw Jonathan Smith and Mick Hauser joining them on the sidelines soon after, it was left to captain MacDonald to anchor the innings and lift the run-scoring in the last ten overs. MacDonald would put on almost fifty with Travis Uern (20 from 22 balls) and then forty with Simon Wilson, all the while smashing a rather out-of-character run-a-ball half-century, finishing with 56 from 52 balls, from which only 24 runs were scored in boundaries. It was the lightning running between wickets of Wilson that turned McDonald's shots for one into twos, propelling the captain and his team toward a good score. It was thrilling to watch. At the end of their fifty overs, South Australia had pushed their total to a highly competitive 6/241.

In reply, the Western Suburbs batsmen followed in a similar vein to their South Australian and Queensland counterparts, looking to build an innings carefully at the start, occupying time at the crease, before flicking the switch and making a charge. The only problem was that the switch was never flicked. The Victorians were good at getting themselves set, but tight bowling and even better fielding from the SA squad prevented them from mounting a serious chase in the latter overs. Uern and Spry's opening spells were typically miserly, Uern conceding only 16 runs from his five overs, whilst Spry grabbed an early wicket for the expense of only 29 runs from eight overs. Simon Wilson (1/19) replaced Spry and grabbed a key wicket, but then it was left to a combination of Enfield's Adam Gully and Adelaide Lutheran's Nathan Wright, both in for their first match of the carnival, to see the South Australians through the middle overs. Wright, who was something of an unknown quantity in C&CCA circles leading up to the tournament, bowled steadily and showed much promise at first change, claiming the Western Suburbs opening batsman via a catch to Holland and trotting out ten overs for a paltry 21 runs. At the other end, Gully's skidding quick left-armers snared two middle-order poles and broke the back of the Western Suburbs innings.

From there the game seemed to drift toward an uneventful conclusion. Tyson Roling, Mick Hauser, Shaun Holland and even Ashley MacDonald found themselves with the ball in hand, most taking cheeky wickets as the Western Suburbs tail seemed to find themselves stuck in no-man's land - a long way from home, but not keen to have a dig. The afternoon dragged on, Western Suburbs finishing at 9/176 from their allotted overs, and despite the frustrating end to the match, South Australia had stitched up the points and taken an all but unassailable lead in the tournament standings.

SAC&CCA 6/241 from 50 overs (F.Borgas 67, S.Neal 61, A.MacDonald 56*, T.Uern 20, P.K.Chintala 3/28, M.Scalzo 2/27) defeated WSC&CCA 9/175 from 50 overs (J.Spencer 36*, M.Walsh 29, A.Sivasubramaniyan 25, P.K.Chintala 22, G.Brooks 20, T.Roling 2/28, A.Gully 2/43).

Day Three arrived with plenty of dark clouds and the moment the teams arrived at Park 25, the heavens opened for a grand total of ten minutes, which was enough for the ground staff to shoo the National Championships away for the day. Luckily enough, the carnival organisers possessed a simple back-up plan, and after the Para Vista lads had finished setting up the Goat Paddock for the Western Suburbs versus Queensland match, they joined their South Australian team-mates at Gepps Cross Reserve (the home of Enfield), ready to take on bottom-placed Church Cricket New South Wales.

Captain MacDonald won the toss, to make it three from three (he's a good tosser), and despite resting his two opening bowlers (Spry and Uern) for the match, he grabbed the agate and told his boys to pull on their pants. Matty Nitschke started with the gusty breeze at his back and one of his familiar in-duckers trapped a New South Wales opener adjacent in the opening overs. The wicket brought in Blues number three Angus Dallas, who'd made two centuries in as many days. He was the key wicket, and clearly not keen to give it up easy, Dallas seemed to scratch about for a long time. In conjunction with Andrew Bourne, who took to Adam Gully's bowling early, Dallas and New South Wales threatened to compile a big tally. Initially, a change in the attack didn't seem to stem the tide, as more runs were plundered from the bowling of Simon Wilson, but the Sarge was never going to disappoint. Striking three times (including twice in one over) to destroy the New South Wales middle order and finish with well-earnt figures of 3/43.

At the other end, Matt Bedgegood began his spell where he left off against Queensland on day one, bowling in a way that made it hard for the batsmen to peel off runs without taking a risk. Matt snared the next three wickets (two LBWs and a catch snaffled only metres inside the boundary by Fin Borgas) to leave New South Wales floundering at 7/110.

Unfortunately for South Australia, that's just about where the wickets halted (besides a humorous run out from Jon Smith and / or Ashley MacDonald), as New South Wales tail-ender Manjula Wedegedara belted his way to quick-fire half-century and helping his side post a slightly more respectable 8/143 from their 50 overs.

With the bat, Captain MacDonald settled with his opening pairing of Day Two (Holland and Borgas) and for the second consecutive match, they didn't let South Australia down, both working their way into their innings with utmost care. Shaun Holland departed LBW for 28, but the score was 66, and most of the damage was already done by Finley Borgas, who was racing towards his second half-century in two days. Jon Smith went in at number three, and despite an early life (and the fact that the talented Para Vistan was suffering from a terrible sinus infection), he proceeded to belt the New South Wales attack all over Terama.

Finley played a few corkers too - the highlight a lofted off-drive straight out of the screws that went as far as the playground for a massive six at the northern end. The target was achieved in a canter, one wicket down with twelve overs to spare, and South Australia had wrapping up top spot and another meeting with New South Wales in the semi-final the next day.

SAC&CCA 1/146 from 38 overs (F.Borgas 71*, J.Smith 41*, S.Holland 28) defeated CCNSW 8/143 from 50 overs (M.Wedegedara 50*, A.Dallas 31, A.Bourne 24, M.Bedgegood 3/26, S.Wilson 3/43).

DAY FOUR (Semi Final)
The sun didn't exactly rise over Park 25 for the semi-finals on Day Four. The grass was still damp, the sky was a little grey and the wind gusted annoyingly. The conditions weren't enjoyable and for a couple of reasons, some felt that playing New South Wales twice in two days wasn't exactly enjoyable either, particularly with much riding on the game - a loss to the winless Blues would not only be embarrassing, but would cost South Australia a Grand Final berth after winning the minor round games.

Ashley MacDonald brought Michael Spry and Travis Uern back in for the match (at the expense of Wilson and Smith) and when the team found out they were set to bowl first again, they set about their task with more vigour than the day before. Spry was charging in with the breeze over his shoulder, bowling with real venom - there were even a few words exchanged with the batsmen. A wicket from a no-ball was disheartening early, but it wasn't too costly as him and Uern (2/43) both took early wickets. Spry, Uern and then Nathan Wright (in an unprecedented seventeen-over spell) began to skittle middle-order wickets all over the place. 

Only an interesting umpiring decision in the favour of New South Wales threatened to halt the march of South Australia, with the lucky batsman (John McCaughan) playing some fairly agricultural, but effective shots to race to 45 from half as many balls. It was a few cheeky seamers from Tyson Roling that wrestled back the ascendancy, the good-looking Lion claiming 3/24 from five overs. 

Some phenomenal glove work from Marc Cossens, 'keeping up to the stumps to Nathan Wright (3/48), claimed two stumpings for the final two wickets of the innings. New South Wales all out for 167, or 171, depending on which scorer you ask, but either way, finishing their innings well short of their allotted 50 overs.

Shaun Holland and Finley Borgas trotted out to bat confident of another solid South Australian start, but in a big scare for the home side, it wasn't to be, 2/13 in the early stages. Their dismissal united the Rose Park veterans Steve Neal and Ashley MacDonald at the crease, and the pair resolved to settle in. 

It was ugly early on, both batsmen chewing through a number of balls - ignoring even the rankest fullies and half-trackers - to simply wear down the opposition. When the time was right, both went big, increasing their strike rate and making light work of the winning target. Neal hit twelve boundaries to race to 81 not out from 96 balls, whilst MacDonald continued in the quick-scoring vein that seemed foreign to him, 69 from 65 balls, reaching the rope seven times. It was a titanic 157-run partnership that asserted the dominance over New South Wales that the home side had craved for the best part of two days. South Australia 2/170 inside 41 overs and bound for the Grand Final against Queensland.

SAC&CCA 2/170 from 40.5 overs (S.Neal 81*, A.MacDonald 69*) defeated CCNSW all out 167 (J.McCaughan 45, P.Varughese 25, T.Roling 3/24, N.Wright 3/48, M.Spry 2/42, T.Uern 2/43).

DAY FIVE (Grand Final)
Ashley MacDonald awoke on the final day of the National Championships with a couple of tricky decisions to make. All of his players had performed admirably during the week, but four blokes had to sit out the biggest SAC&CCA match in forty-six years. In the end, the Cougar looked for a little punch at the top of the order, replacing Shaun Holland with Tim Hodson, and wanted to back in his wicket-taking pace bowlers, resting Matthew Bedgegood, Simon Wilson and Adam Gully. Those that missed out were unlucky - each would have easily made any other side in the competition.

When Ashley won the toss and elected to bat, his first change would be put to the test immediately, Hodson padding up and wandering into bat with Finley Borgas. Initially, Tim's inclusion seemed to pay great dividends, as the dashing Para Vistan bludgeoned a brilliant boundary in the opening overs. Sadly, Tim was walking back to the sideline soon after and then with the score unchanged, Steve Neal copped the best ball of the tournament from Jeff Spalding. He left a curling out-swinger, only for it to seam and flick the bail of his off-stump. For the first time in his cricketing history, Neal walked off giggling mildly at losing his wicket.

When Finley Borgas was caught knicking soon after, South Australia were in a world of hurt, 3/31 and plenty of overs used up already. Captain Ashley MacDonald (21) was joined at the crease by Jonathan Smith and both did some difficult work to see more of the shine off the ball, but just as it seemed the runs were about to flow freely, a skied chance from MacDonald saw him trudging off and SAC&CCA far from a competitive total at 4/61.

If any positive could have come from that circumstance it would be that the coolest heads in the team, Smith, and Mick Hauser would be united at the crease in undoubtedly the toughest test for the South Australians all week. Together, Smith and Hauser negotiated that difficult period with aplomb, playing with absolute resolve under a mountain of pressure. Jon was first to reach his half-century, and sadly could add no more to his well-constructed innings, dismissed the next ball with the score at a far more healthy 130. When Tyson Roling was dismissed soon after, South Australia seemed to wobble again, but pure class from Hauser and his Adelaide Lutheran team-mate Nathan Wright soon had the innings back on track.

Hauser (77*) notched a half-century and well beyond, most of his runs coming in hastily pushed two's during a vital half-century seventh-wicket stand with Wright (24). Nathan's cameo came almost at a run-a-ball, but amazingly without a boundary. With the Queensland field set well back, the pair pushed for every run and when Hauser was run out, Travis Uern, Matthew Nitschke and Marc Cossens did exactly the same. Uern, in fact, hit a booming maximum to the longest boundary of the ground - his efforts assisting South Australia in posting a competitive total of 9/223 from fifty overs.

Travis Uern and Michael Spry then started spritely with the ball. Uern claimed the wicket of Laurien Cheyne - there was to be no anchoring innings from the Queensland opener in this match. Spry wasn't as successful in terms of wickets, but his nine overs went for a mere 19 runs, including three maidens. Despite this tight beginning, Queensland's Player of the Carnival Adam Walker was beginning to look ominous. He took to the bowling with a myriad of beautiful strokes as Nathan Wright and Matthew Nitshcke replaced Uern and Spry. At 1/62, Walker had already brought up a chanceless half-century and South Australia were in grave danger of losing grip on the match.

Enter Nathan Wright. His dismissal of Queensland number three just as the opposition started to push the run-rate was a god send. A skied chance to Jonathan Smith who held on like his life depended on it and Wright had opened his account. Pressure bowling in the overs immediately following the dismissal seemed to heap more pressure on the Maroons. Something else had to give.

From the bowling of Nitschke, the Queensland batsmen called for what they thought was a quick single. Simon Wilson, substituted onto the field for an injured Tim Hodson, swooped on the ball and in one motion flung the ball wicket-ward. It hit and Adam Walker was caught well short. That piece of fielding will likely never be bettered in National Championships history, not only for the skill involved in executing it, but for the difference it made to an important match in the balance. Wilson's team-mates were in raptures.

From there, the pressure just heaped and heaped on the Queenslanders as Wright and Matthew Nitschke continued to strangle the run-rate with pitched-up, economical bowling. MacDonald dared not remove the ball from their hands and his persistence with them was repaid a short time later, when South Australia removed five wickets at a cost of only 16 runs - all but one of them to Nathan Wright, who was destined to finish the day at 6/71 from 16 straight overs. Nitschke snared a well-earned wicket too, with Uern (twice), Neal, and Roling all taking tough catches to assist the hard-working Bulldog quicks. 

The game then petered out as the Queensland tail-enders seemed to play for time, so Ashley MacDonald granted himself a swan-song, coming onto bowl at the northern end at the expense of Wright for the last over of the National Championships. A wild swing from the Queensland number eleven on the second ball found its way through the gate and the game was done - CCAQ all out for 179, The Lowe Cup finding a home in South Australia for the first time since 1968.

SAC&CCA 9/223 from 50 overs (M.Hauser 77, J.Smith 50, N.Wright 24, A.MacDonald 21, L.Egan 2/22, J.Spalding 2/50) defeated CCAQ all out 179 from 49.2 overs (A.Walker 52, C.Lenton 33, T.A.Wakefield 20, N.Wright 6/71).

As the beverages flowed after the match, South Australia were also awarded the Errol Porter Trophy for sportsmanship (fittingly in a tie with Queensland). Wright, Neal, Cossens and team manager Peter O'Brien were awarded the baggy-green cap of the AC&CCA All-Australian team, with the likes of Borgas, Smith, Hauser and Uern unlucky to miss out.

The phenomenal National Championships results were a true team effort. Behind the scenes, Michael Johns' toasted sandwiches, the ever-present assistance of Robin Turner, the commitment to a neat scorebook shown by Aaron Burgess, the dinners prepared by Marc Cossens and the hours of preparation offered up by Ian Amey and Peter Taylor had not gone unnoticed. Matt Long and Sarah O'Brien captured the action brilliantly on film all week, and none of any of it could have been possible without Peter O'Brien, who knows exactly whatever else needs to be done, and does it.

The lads on field are fairly ordinary lads, blokes who we all might have seen around the traps on a Saturday, but they simply stuck together for five days and achieved something extraordinary. When the celebrations die down, they'll be planning a title defence... and all are welcome to be a part of it in Melbourne in 2016.

Words: Aaron Burgess
Images: Matt Long (Longtime Photography)
All copyright 2015.