Last season, Sydney Thunder were one step away from reaching the final before they went down to Melbourne Stars in the Challenger at the MCG. The Callum Ferguson-led side are set to commence their Big Bash League 2020-21 journey on Saturday (December 12) at the Manuka Oval, Canberra and they will be against the very same opponent they lost to in the Challenger in the previous edition.
Melbourne have started their season in grand fashion by thwarting Brisbane Heat by six wickets at the same venue on Friday. The Glenn Maxwell-led side bundled out Brisbane for just 125 and then chased it down with 17 deliveries to spare. The Stars have also had the better of Thunder in the recent past, having won all of their last four encounters.
CUTTING-BILLINGS BOOST FOR SYDNEY
In Alex Hales, Usman Khawaja and Ferguson, the Thunder have a formidable top-order, but they have also recruited Ben Cutting and Sam Billings to strengthen their middle-order. The former three scored almost 60 per cent of the total team runs last season but Sydney struggled a bit because of their mediocre middle-order.
Alex Ross did a good job in the middle but didn't find much support from the other batsmen. Apart from the aforementioned four, Chris Morris (112) was the only batsman to score more than 100 runs last season and that tells you how much Sydney relied on their top-order.
"One of the key areas we highlighted was having someone who could bat at No.6 and add some firepower. As it turned out Brisbane wanted to release Ben Cutting … and I was really keen to get him to join us. He was our number one priority and we've been wrapped to grab him," the Thunder head coach Shane Bond told Cricket.com.au.
"We wanted someone to bat in the middle order around Ross and Cutting and most overseas players tend to bat at the top of the order, but Sam Billings wants to bat in the four or five spot and wants to push his case in that role for England. So he fits perfectly for us, we're stoked to get him and we're excited to unleash him in the tournament," Bond reckoned.
Last season, the Thunder (9.3) had the third-worst scoring rate in the last five overs. As Bond said, Sydney lacked a bit of firepower in the middle and the newly-formed trio of Ross, Billings and Cutting could prove to be the real game-changers. Billings however is currently serving quarantine and will be available after Christmas. In his absence, Baxter Holt would probably take the gloves.
BIG SHOES TO FILL FOR MILNE
No other team took more wickets in the last five overs than Sydney Thunder (43) in the previous edition, with Sams picking 15 of those. The left-arm seamer however found good support from Chris Morris but the South African allrounder is not available this season and Sydney have replaced him with Adam Milne. The New Zealand pacer has been around for almost 10 years but has had a stop-start career because of injuries.
The likes of Jonathan Cook, Arjun Nair, Chris Tremain, Nathan McAndrew and Chris Green all did a decent job but failed to pick wickets at regular intervals. With Morris not available, Milne will have to take up the responsibility of bowling those tough overs alongside Sams.
The 28-year-old however hasn't played any competitive cricket since August 2019 when he suffered an ankle stress fracture playing for Kent. He then suffered a hamstring injury ahead of the Plunket Shield season, and would be out of match practice when he takes the field on Saturday. The Thunder will rely a lot on Sams and Milne and if these two don't fire, their bowling attack could come under the pump.
THE GLENN MAXWELL FACTOR
The dynamic right-hander has managed to turn things around after a dreadful IPL. Maxwell managed scores of 45, 63*, 59, 2, 22 and 54 respectively in three ODIs and as many T20Is against India and he did that at an insane strike rate. The Stars skipper looked in solid touch against Brisbane as well, slamming 46 off just 26 deliveries. Chasing a low target of 126, Melbourne were reduced to 34/3 but that's when Maxwell walked in and ripped apart the Brisbane bowling attack with three maximums and as many fours.
However, the Stars team management would be more delighted with the way their bowlers performed. While Zahir Khan is still serving quarantine, Haris Rauf will only join the squad next month. Melbourne however didn't really feel the absence of these two as the likes of Nathan Coulter-Nile, Dilbar Hussain and the rest of the bowlers bowled with great control against Brisbane.
The openers - Marcus Stoinis and Andre Fletcher - didn't have a great first game and would be eager to get back amongst runs as soon as possible. The runners-up for the past two seasons have started their season with a convincing win, something that they have done so many times in the past, but this year they would be eager to go one step further and finally get their hands on the silverware.
Melbourne Stars: Marcus Stoinis, Andre Fletcher, Hilton Cartwright, Glenn Maxwell (c), Nick Larkin, Ben Dunk (wk), Nathan Coulter-Nile, Clint Hinchliffe, Adam Zampa, Billy Stanlake, Dilbar Hussain.
Sydney Thunder: Alex Hales, Usman Khawaja, Callum Ferguson (c), Alex Ross, Ben Cutting, Baxter Holt (wk), Arjun Nair/Jonathan Cook, Chris Green, Daniel Sams, Adam Milne, Chris Tremain.