By Nick Creely
One thing is certain in this time of uncertainty surrounding when the cricket season does get underway – Dandenong will embrace its unpredictability and flexibility as it seeks a return to the Victorian Premier Cricket finals in 2020/21.
The Panthers finished ninth in the 2019/20 season, just two points shy of a finals spot after a tense and agonising draw in the final round of the home-and-away season against St Kilda at home.
But for long-periods of the season they played some excellent cricket despite some of its challenges, and the club will have garnered plenty of momentum from the continual development of some of its players
And champion batsman Tom Donnell, who will once again go around as captain this season alongside new coach and the legendary Warren Ayres, said that the Panthers will be primed and ready to charge up the ladder when the season does get the much anticipated green-light.
“The aim is obviously always to play finals and see what happens from there, but it’ll be interesting, we’ve got a few new players, bowlers, which is good,” he said.
“We were around the mark last year, we just had some bad losses in games that could have gone either way, but that’s the way it goes.
“It’s an incredibly tight competition, and sometimes that’s the way it goes.You have to be on your game each week to perform well.
“Hopefully we push back in, and with a few new players it’ll be interesting to see – the season most likely will be all one-day, so you need to get off to a fast start with a short season.
“We just want to get into some training, and see how the boys are going.”
With the pandemic forcing community sport to come to a grinding halt for the majority of 2020, Donnell said it was vital that the club stayed connected and positive in a tough time for so many people.
“The situation with what’s happening (in Victoria) has impacted everyone, and I guess for us it’s a bit different coming into the season with a new coach, and a fair few new players at the club,” he said.
“It does make it harder to get around everyone, and get to know the new players, and how Warren will go for the guys that don’t know him, so it’s been different, but we’re looking forward to being able to do something soon.
“There’s obviously the group chats with the players and coaches, and we’ve been big on that, and we’re trying to keep everyone together and doing weekly challenges.
“We’re trying to get out and do something, and while we can’t see each other and train properly, its important to stay in touch and keep everyone motivated.
“It’s pretty easy to lose motivation during this time, I think.”
A focus on bolstering the bowling stocks has seen the Panthers recruit quicks James Maxwell from Casey-South Melbourne, Jack Fowler from Kingston Hawthorn and Braden Taeuber from Monbulk. Highly-promising speedster Adam McMaster has also returned from Melbourne.
“If you look at the quicks that have come and gone from the club in the last few years, the turnover has been huge, so we needed to get some depth in and some consistency in those blokes to support the veterans and guys that you can count on, like (James) Nanopoulos and (Peter) Cassidy,” Donnell said.
“We wanted to get some guys with a bit more pace, and even if they were a little bit more raw that’s something we’re after.
“We feel like we can control things pretty well with those guys like Nano and Cassidy, but we want some unpredictability I suppose and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Donnell also said that competition for spots will be fierce at the club, with the Panthers also adding in batsman Aaron Fernando from Casey-South Melbourne and retaining the majority of its list.
But he also pointed to an exciting crop of young cricketers coming through the club, believing they will be given every opportunity to knock down the door for selection.
“There’s plenty of spots up for grabs, so hopefully these new guys can push and perform well,” he said.
“There’s a lot of options, and I reckon we’re going to play a lot of players. I think spots are going to be keenly challenged, and I think we’ll look to get both young batters and bowlers through.
“Playing some of those young guys is just as important, we need to be looking to the future too when the older guys move on.
“We’ve got a great group of young players, so now it’s just about giving them games and opportunities to get used to the standard and know the game a bit better.
“Because the season isn’t going to be normal, you possibly can mix things up a bit and see how things can work, we’re not sure just yet structurally how we’ll look.
“It may depend week-to-week on conditions, or opposition, so we need to be flexible which is a great thing for our club to give guys opportunity in different positions.”
One emerging star that Donnell said was generating plenty of excitement was Ed Newman – a cricketer of prodigious talent who will be desperate to make a statement.
“Ed Newman is still really young, and he took massive steps last year – I know he lost his Victorian contract but I don’t think its necessarily a bad thing for him,” he said.
“He’s a better player now than he was two or three years ago, and he’s a better all-round player.
“The way he hits the ball, and his fielding is primed to take the next step, so we’re really excited.”
In terms of the youth and developing players coming through Shepley Oval, Donnell said there will be plenty of youngsters to keep an eye on when the season does get a start.
“We’ve got guys like Max Marinic, he played in the thirds last season, and should be able to take up that next step to the seconds, and push further from there,” he said.
“To even see further improvement from guys like Comrey Edgeworth and Josh Slater is exciting, so we feel we’ve got guys who can push up and have even better years than they did last year.”
With the evergreen Donnell set to once again lead the Panthers into another season, the champion batsman said he just wants to continue enjoying his cricket.
“I’m looking forward to it – I don’t have many years left in me so we’ll see how it goes and have a bit of fun, and hopefully the younger guys can push up and play well,” he said.