BBL Final – Melbourne Stars v Sydney Thunder
Sunday January 24, 7:20pm
Both the Melbourne Stars and Sydney Thunder will be looking for their maiden title when they take on each other in this season’s BBL final at the MCG on Sunday.
After four consecutive defeats at the semi-final stage the Stars finally broke through for their first finals appearance by defeating defending champions Perth Scorchers by seven wickets at the MCG on Friday. Despite missing four of their first-choice bowlers to international duty, the Stars’ attack managed to strangle Perth for the second successive match, restricting them to just 7/139. The chase got off a slightly nervy start but was settled by an outstanding 62 to Kevin Pietersen, while out-of-sorts opener Marcus Stoinis found some long-awaited touch with a gritty 44. Since losing the nucleus of their attack to the Australian ODI side young swing bowler Daniel Worrall has really stepped up and enhanced his reputation, taking a combined 6/40 off eight overs in the Stars’ last two encounters. The home side will also be buoyed by the form of spin duo Adam Zampa and Michael Beer with Zampa averaging 13.80 with the ball over the past three games while Beer has been one of the most economical bowlers throughout the entire tournament.
After finishing in the bottom two in all four previous seasons of the BBL, the Thunder find themselves in this year’s final after crushing the Adelaide Strikers by eight wickets in the first semi-final on Thursday. Fielding first, the Thunder reduced Adelaide to 4/64 before some late hitting saw the Strikers set Mike Hussey’s side a target of 160 to progress. Usman Khawaja made light work of the total, stroking an immaculate 104 not out as the Thunder cruised home for the loss of only two wickets and with 14 balls to spare. With the ball Clint McKay continued his rich vein of form, picking up three wickets against the Strikers to become the leading wicket-taker in the tournament. In team news all-rounder Jacques Kallis has recovered from a groin injury and will replace New Zealand international Henry Nicholls in the squad. With Kallis providing an extra option with the ball the Thunder may look to boost their batting with Aiden Blizzard a possible inclusion at the expense of rookie fast-bowler Nathan McAndrew.
While the MCG has generally produced plenty of runs this season, the pitch on Friday night looked a tad slow with boundaries particularly difficult to come by. The spinners on both sides played a key role in the semi-final, conceding just 5.64 runs an over compared to the 8.03 an over leaked by the quicks. Earlier in the season the Thunder pipped the Stars by one run at the MCG and the visitors will be hoping that they can continue the unflattering record of home finalists who have won just one out of three finals.
Punters are not too concerned about that record, installing the Stars as 1.94 favourites, with the Thunder 2.04 outsiders. With the Stars having won five out of their past six and knocking over perennial finalists Perth in the semi-finals, they probably deserve favouritism, however after the Thunder’s convincing performance against minor premiers Adelaide I’m not too keen to oppose them either.
One of the highlights of the Thunder’s campaign has been the irresistible form of opening batsman Usman Khawaja. International duty has restricted Khawaja to only three appearances in the BBL, however he has incredibly got himself to fifth on the tournament run-scorer list with scores of 109 not out, 62 and 104 not out. That comes on top of scores at international level of 144, 56, 121, 174 and 9 not out, distinguishing him as the form batsman in the country.
He has already shown a liking for the Stars with his first century of the competition coming against them at the MCG in a match where only one other player passed 50. Also, while the Thunder have progressed all the way to the final the only other batsman to have an above-average season for the underdogs has been captain Hussey, with the remainder averaging 25 or below. The return of Kallis should push Hussey down the order, which makes backing Khawaja to top-score for the Thunder an even more attractive proposition. Having not been dismissed for less than 50 since October I’m more than happy to jump aboard the “Uzmania” and back Khawaja to top-score yet again for the Thunder at a price of around 3.25.