BBL Finals set to get underway
After an extended season – the longest it's ever been – the BBL regular season has at last wrapped up, and there are four teams remaining. The Hobart Hurricanes, Melbourne Stars, Melbourne Renegades and Sydney Sixers will fight it out over a comparatively short finals series, with the Hurricanes and Stars opening proceedings with a semi-final on Thursday night Australia time before the Renegades and Sixers battle for the remaining spot in the final on Friday night.
In an extremely tight regular season, no team – with the exception of the Hurricanes – was safe until virtually the end of their final game. The Stars, in particular, only barely scraped through, with a win against fellow finalists, the Sixers, in the final game of the season allowing them to sneak into fourth position. They ended just half a game ahead of the Heat and Thunder in fifth and sixth respectively, and a full game ahead of the Strikers in seventh.
Heading into the finals, the Hurricanes are the favourites after a season in which they were the only team able to separate themselves from the pack, finishing on top by two games having won 10 of their 14 games. They have been lead by their dominant opening pairing of D'Arcy Short and Matthew Wade, who finished the season proper comfortably atop the total runs table. Short finished with the most in the league with 602 runs, while Wade managed 590 – the next best was Marcus Stoinis, who has scored 472. Short's runs came at an average of 54.72 and a strike rate of 139.35 (the third best amongst the top ten run scorers in the league), while Wade averaged 45.38 at a strike rate of 147.86 (the second best amongst the top ten run scorers in the league).
George Bailey has also been a strong performer in the middle order, averaging 46.57, while Ben McDermott has averaged 35.88. From a bowling perspective, the Hurricanes haven't had anyone as dominant as Wade or Short, but have been held in good stead by consistency of performance from a wide range of bowlers – James Faulkner, Jofra Archer and Riley Meredith snared 18, 17 and 16 wickets respectively.
Despite their dominance in the regular season, however, the Hurricanes are expected to be heavily challenged. They are listed as the favourites by bookmakers, but little separates them and the Renegades in second, and even the Sixers – the least favoured team remaining – aren't far back.
Each of the Stars, Renegades and Sixers have reason to be optimistic about their chances in the finals. The Renegades have been lead by opening bowler Kane Richardson, the leading wicket taker in the tournament. Richardson, with 24 wickets, has been key as a result of his ability to take wickets both early and late in the innings, and has maintained the very reasonable economy rate of 7.64 along the way.
Their batting, in contrast, has been a problem – Sam Harper is their leading run scorer with 299 at an average of 23. Unfortunately for them, all-rounder Mohammed Nabi, who has been a reliable contributor with both bat and ball, has been called up for national duty by Afghanistan, and will be a notable absence in the finals series.
The Sixers, too, will be missing a key component of their team, with Englishman Tom Curran leaving for national duty as well. Curran has been brilliant throughout the eighth edition of the BBL, snaring 20 wickets, the third most in the league, while also providing extremely valuable contributions with the bat. Not yet typically regarded as an all-rounder, Curran has certainly laid claim to being one, averaging 30.83 at a strike rate of 144.53 on the way to 185 total runs for the tournament.
The Sixers also boast one of the most economical bowlers in the league in Steven O'Keefe, who has picked up 19 wickets while conceding just 6.65 runs per over throughout the series. His performance with ball in hand will be crucial to his team's chances of success in the BBL finals.
Finally, the Stars, the often underperforming Stars, have a chance to win their first title after sneaking into the finals with a win over the Sixers last Sunday. The key to that win may be the key to their finals chances as well – Glenn Maxwell smashed 82 off just 43 deliveries as the Stars stormed to a total of 168, while he also snared a wicket off his solitary over during the second innings rout of the Sixers. He has managed a respectable 287 runs at an average of 31.88 and strike rate of 147.93 throughout the series, though those numbers were obviously boosted by his most recent innings. He will likely need to put in a couple of huge performances if the Stars are to be a chance of their maiden title.
So too will Marcus Stoinis, who has been the Stars best player and one of the best in the tournament when he hasn't been on international duty. The big hitting all-rounder has been the player to most closely replicate the performance of Short and Wade for Hobart – he has the third most runs in the league with 476, though as mentioned, his international duties have meant he has only played 11 of 14 games. His runs have come at the huge average of 59.50 and a strike rate of 136. With ball in hand he has been impressive too, picking up 14 wickets at the low average of 14.07. He has, however, been a little expensive, allowing 8.20 runs per over.
Heading into the final four days of BBL action, it's anyone's guess who will take out the eighth edition of the series. The Hurricanes are slightly favoured to edge the Stars on Thursday night, while the Renegades are equally favoured to take out the Sixers the next day, but a look at the lineups suggest that both games could very easily go either way. It wouldn't surprise to see more than one of the remaining three games to go down to the wire, so strap yourselves in and prepare for an exciting few days of cricket.