BBL report card: Stars shine but AB feels the Heat
AND then there were five.
After 56 regular season matches, Melbourne Stars came out on top to seal the minor premiership.
But a revamped finals format means even fifth placed Sydney Thunder - who along with their Eliminator opponents Hobart Hurricanes finished having lost more matches than they won - are still alive and kicking, though needing four straight victories on the road to take the title.
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The Stars limped to the end of the regular season with three straight losses, with that elusive finals weapon - momentum - now firmly with a now Steve Smith-inspired Sydney Sixers.
The Green Machine has enjoyed its most dominant season since Tim Paine accused them of rorting the salary cap six years ago.
They've secured a record eighth finals appearance in nine seasons, however remain one of just two franchise - along with Hobart Hurricanes - still with a bare trophy cabinet. But with a rare home final, the all-new double chance and strong availability, the next week shapes as a golden opportunity to break the duck.
Cricket Victoria's new Big Bash boss Nick Cummins deserves plenty of kudos, because he put Haris Rauf on the Stars' map, and they put him in the fast lane to stardom.
Rauf's 16 wickets in just seven games has coach David Hussey hoping it transforms the bowler from grade cricket in Hobart into a three-format international superstar for Pakistan. The 150km quick - who Stars' batsmen openly avoid in the nets - was parachuted in for Pakistan's T20 series against Bangladesh this month, but is back for the BBL finals.
Haris is a BBL feel-good story for the ages, but the list goes on for the green team. There's Glenn Maxwell's power-play bowling, death batting and sharp captaincy, golden-cap wearer Marcus Stoinis's home-and-away record-breaking runs tally and Hussey's cool coaching style. The spin-to-win tactics have worked a treat, and are suited to the spacious MCG.
Losing Sandeep Lamichhane, who has returned home to Nepal for an ODI tri-series against Oman and the USA, shapes as a big blow for the finals.
Maxwell rates Lamichhane as a "superstar" and his four overs after the power-play had a happy knack of breaking partnerships and, at times, applying the brakes. The tail-off in form is worrying - the Stars lost their final three games - however finals is a new ball game. Hussey rated Hilton Cartwright as the find of the summer while Maxwell said the brilliant fielder saved about 20 runs per game, so his pre-finals injury (broken hand in the nets) is another untimely blow.
Nic Maddinson's average after 22 games for the Stars is just 11. Can he bounce back when it counts? Although would you believe the part-time tweaker boasts the No.1 economy rate in the league (6.14) while he has also grabbed three wickets from seven overs?
Dale Steyn (side strain) two of his contracted six games and then got better and better and better however all that absence did was deliver Rauf his chance at the big time.
Like a racehorse being prepared for the Melbourne Cup, the Sixers have timed their run to perfection, winning their last two regular season matches in emphatic fashion to finish second and give themselves two chances at making the final.
With Steve Smith, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon all back from international duty, the Sixers have got the X-factor that teams need to win the title. Exciting youngster Josh Philippe has plundered over 400 runs at the top of the order and Moises Henriques and James Vince have both made half-centuries when needed so the batting order is solid. With Sean Abbott back to join the Hazlewood and Lyon, the bowling attack has never been in shape to give the Sixers a real shot at the title.
It only happened twice but those two catastrophic batting collapses are a constant reminder that when things do wrong for the Sixers, they go very, very wrong. Chasing a modest target of 130 against the Hobart Hurricanes in December, they crumbled to be all out for 104 then just last week they folded like a deck of cards and were bowled out for 76 against the Thunder. They have lost star allrounder Tom Curran for the playoffs and there are also concerns about their ability to peg back batsmen who get on top of their bowlers early. There have been only four centuries this season but two have been against the Sixers including the all-time BBL record of 147 not out by Marcus Stoinis.
Adelaide Strikers probably would've earned an A- or A grade had they not dropped their last regular season match, at home, against Hobart Hurricanes, which cost them a double finals chance.
Still, they'll play either the 'Canes again or Sydney Thunder in 'The Knockout' on February 1, and would back themselves in against either opposition.
The side's strength has been built on batting depth
Adelaide's top six - particularly entering finals - is one of the most durable in the competition.
The addition of English opener Phil Salt has been a great foil for Jake Weatherald, while the return of Alex Carey and Travis Head from international duty has been huge.
Arguably the biggest success story, however, has been Jon Wells, who has had a brilliant BBL09 batting in the middle order, where he's scored an incredible 444 runs.
Peter Siddle has been brilliant at the death. His 17 wickets at 19.1 have been invaluable.
Coupled with Rashid Khan (18 wickets at 20.7), they make a dangerous one-two punch.
Adelaide made things hard for itself by dropping its opening three games of BBL09.
Since then, though, it has ground out a 5-2 record and given itself a shot at the title.
The Strikers' bowling unit coughing up 217 runs, for just one wicket, against the Hurricanes last match is also cause for some concern.
Billy Stanlake is one of the quickest bowlers in the BBL, but batsmen have all too often used his pace against him - particularly to target short boundaries - just as D'Arcy Short and Matthew Wade did against him on Australia Day (his one over went for 22 runs).
The Strikers' spearhead has taken just four wickets at a 66.5-run average, reflecting his testing season.
If Rashid and Siddle don't fire, the Strikers could be vulnerable.
What? The Hurricanes hosting a home final?! You had to rub your eyes in disbelief upon seeing Hobart waltz into fourth spot. There was a touch of Steven Bradbury about it; the Scorchers and Heat fell at the finish line while Hobart peeled off three-straight wins. Hurricanes were clearly the most dominant franchise last summer, however the wheels started to fall off late in the season and they were bounced out in a home semi-final. Far more momentum this time around.
The only franchise without a batter in the top 10 run-scorers, but that's a false economy. Matthew Wade (337) and D'Arcy Short (320) have again blown matches apart, but have both only played eight games due to Test and ODI selection respectively. Wade's strike-rate of 173.7 is second only to English bully and mini KP Tom Banton, while Clive Rose sits surprisingly in third, with his 90 runs coming from just 32 balls. In fact, let's be honest, Wade is the reason they are still alive as his bullocking 130 not-out (61 balls) in Adelaide Oval booking a top-five finish. Future selector George Bailey has had a close-up look at Wade's white-ball assault. Could another monstrous Big Bash lead to a call-up for February's tour of South Africa?
They have been cruelled by availability. England ace Jofra Archer withdrew before the tournament, Wade and Short have both missed six games due to international selection, James Faulkner has missed eight through injury while strike weapon Riley Meredith (side strain) is gone for the season. South African David Miller has also gone home after a disappointing tournament, where he blasted an unbeaten 90 in one game and averaged 12 in the rest. Hurricanes will probably replace him with either Caleb Jewell for the final against Sydney Thunder. The Meredith blow was a big one - he grabbed 10 wickets in six games at a measly economy of 6.7 and seemed to be hurtling towards an international debut.
Holding their nerve to beat the Perth Scorchers in their final match and qualify for the semi-finals, for just the second time in franchise history, speaks volumes about their courage but by finishing fifth, they have a treacherous road to a second title, needing to win four matches on the trot, all away from home.
Daniel Sams has been a revelation with the ball this season, capturing a BBL record 25 wickets to take ownership of the Golden Arm cap as the leading wicket taker in the competition.
Not only that but he's been getting most of his scalps at the death with his slower ball to put the brakes on teams running away with big scores. English import Alex Hales has been just as devastating with the bat, scoring 449 runs - to finish second behind Marcus Stoinis in the Golden Bat category - but at a better strike-rate of 143.91.
Whether it's been bad luck or bad management, the Thunder have struggled to win the close games, losing once in a Super over and twice under the DLS system.
Although Callum Ferguson, Usman Khawaja and Alex Ross have scored six 50s between them, the Thunder have struggled to post huge totals with their biggest (172) not in the top 30 this season. And while Sams has shone with the ball, he hasn't had a lot of help with South African Chris Morris (15 wickets) the only other Thunder bowler to get into double figures this season.
The Justin Langer hangover rolled on with the three-time champions missing finals for the second time under Adam Voges, something that had never previously happened. The West Australians were once impenetrable although a worrying trend of players leaving the Scorchers' nest has broken out.
The Stars helped themselves to Nathan Coulter-Nile, Hilton Cartwright and Clint Hinchcliffe this season, the Renegades pinched Shaun Marsh while Josh Phillippe was lured to Sydney Sixers by Steve Smith last year and is now blossoming into a younger version of the glorious batsman.
It was obvious when the shrewd Andrew McDonald drafted Liam Livingstone to Birmingham Phoenix with his first pick in The Hundred draft that the young Englishman was one to watch. Well, the unknown talent blasted the most BBL sixes in his maiden campaign (27) and put on three century-stands with fellow opener Josh Inglis, when no other pair managed more than one.
Inglis, too, was a shining light with four half-centuries. Fawad Ahmed turned games and Perth Stadium suited his tweakers just fine, with his economy rate of 6.9 ranking in the league's top 10. Oh, and captain Mitchell Marsh and strike weapon Jhye Richardson showed they are going to play a lot of cricket for Australia, probably across every format.
Richardson still can't throw properly after that dislocated shoulder injury, but has lost none of his pace and has a knack of taking big, big wickets.
Cricket Australia dudded the Scorchers with a bogus itinerary that saw them jet back and forth across the country after every game.
While other franchises were able to peel off consecutive away games on the one journey, the Scorchers had to return to Perth after every away game. It meant they spent 60 hours in the air, some 40 more than most other franchises.
Voges was rightfully furious and surely that will be amended next season, or else it'll hinder Perth's chances of luring star talent. Injuries to AJ Tye (elbow) and Jason Behrendorff (back) limited the wicket-taking options both at the start and at the end of innings. The 6-9 record at Perth Stadium has been costly since moving away from the WACA Ground fortress.
The Heat went into the summer as tournament favourites with the bookmakers but bombed out of the Big Bash after finishing seventh and failing to make the finals.
They can't receive a pass mark for this tournament despite nearly qualifying for the play-offs. They were the only team to lose twice to the last-placed Melbourne Renegades which summed up their season.
The Heat had a few positives to come out of a mostly poor campaign.
English import Tom Banton whacked 16 sixes in seven games and averaged 31.86 to prove he is a star of the future.
Matt Renshaw had a breakout tournament, scoring 348 runs at 29 and rescuing the Heat on multiple occasions.
Brisbane's bowlers mostly had a solid tournament, with Josh Lalor, Mitch Swepson and James Pattinson improving on last summer. The Afghani spinners Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Zahir Khan were also very good.
Brisbane's batting was atrocious. Apart from Banton and Renshaw, no other Heat batsmen can receive a pass mark for the tournament.
Captain Chris Lynn (387 runs at 29.77) finished in the tournament's top 10 run-scorers but only scored two fifties and made too many poor choices.
Sam Heazlett, Max Bryant, Joe Burns, Jimmy Peirson, Ben Cutting and AB de Villiers all needed to produce more than they did. The Heat squandered too many opportunities chasing mediocre totals which ultimately cost them a finals berth.
They have to play smarter next summer.
A pre-season from hell foreshadowed the Renegades' dismal title defence as so much planning went out the window. They thought they'd sign Andre Russell, and then they did sign Pakistanis Usman Shinwari and Faheem Ashraf, only for all three imports to pull out. Combine that with new coach Michael Klinger given five minutes to prepare after Andrew McDonald was poached by Justin Langer and it was clearly a campaign that was going to hit some hurdles.
Three years after Beau Webster arrived in a direct swap for Matthew Wade the 200cm batting allrounder finally made his mark. 'Slug's' 425 runs ranked No.6 in the BBL as he made the No.4 spot his own. The Renegades' 2238 runs for the tournament ranked No.2 in the BBL, although that largely came undone with the ball.
Last summer they scored just 1895 runs, the fewest of any franchise, yet they were able to strangle teams to victory. Cool veteran Shaun Marsh was ultra-consistent while Sam Harper's fearless attack was enjoyable to watch.
Death bowling star Kane Richardson did his best to hold a feeble attack together. Despite winning just three games the Gades were rarely blown away and it was simply a poor over here and there that spun their season out of control, losing the opening nine games.
Import Richard Gleeson arrived underdone while Harry Gurney couldn't replicate his cagey bowling of last summer and then pinged a hamstring.
The Englishmen were mighty expensive, with both costing a disastrous 10 runs per over. Dan Christian - the hero in last summer's pair of epic finals victories - averaged just 12.8 and was targeted with the ball. Christian turns 37 in May, but is contracted next season.
T20 teams love building chemistry and yet the Renegades rolled through 21 players in 14 games. The international slots are open and some firepower with the ball would reshape this team next season.