Rookies punch above their weight in Thunders' triumph
You could glance at the ladder and think it was inevitable that the top side finished as the first Women's Big Bash League champions. It wasn't that simple. Sydney Thunder were an unfancied team that overachieved early, nearly fell apart late, then scrambled through two close finals under pressure for what was really an underdog win.
While experienced seamer Rene Farrell led the way and the tournament with 26 wickets, her team's success was built on the very junior bowlers grouped around her. Lauren Cheatle and Belinda Vakarewa were 17 when the tournament began, leg-spinner Maisy Gibson was 19, and the diminutive Nicola Carey was 21.
With international off-spinner Erin Osborne largely ineffective, Cheatle took 18 wickets, while Carey bowled 61 of a possible 64 overs in controlling the middle of innings. Gibson made key strikes, especially in the finals.
That bowling was sufficiently supported by a short batting line-up, mainly the consistent Alex Blackwell (410 runs), Stafanie Taylor (372) and Rachael Haynes (350). Naomi Stalenberg won national selection with a couple of eye-catching cameos at high strike rates.
Whether defending 14 from the last over of the semi-final (just), or stumbling to their target in the final with two nervous tailenders left to bat, Sydney Thunder found a way, creating a good news story hours before Mike Hussey captained the men's team to a matching title win.
Before the season, captain Heather Knight indicated that reaching the semi-finals would be good result. Even that looked a big ask. Without a culture of state success, and lacking the superstars of mainland clubs, the Canes looked light on.
They confounded expectations, bolting to a 5-0 start, three of those wins by less than five runs. They never dropped out of the top four, even after ceding five of their last six games.
Most significantly, they let the Sixers off the hook on the final day of the season. That last-ball heart-stopper ensured Hobart would play the same side, in rampaging form, in the semi-final, finishing up as Knight had predicted.
The unobtrusive Veronica Pyke took 22 wickets, second in the league, opening partner Julie Hunter was frugal at top and tail, and Amy Satterthwaite impressed with all-round performances.
The captain was a model of consistency with bat, ball, and coin, coupling 363 runs with 17 off-spun wickets and 10 tosses won from 15. Third in the MVP, Knight reinforced her status as England's captain-in-waiting. But no other Hurricane passed 250 season runs. Caribbean import Hayley Matthews made a blistering 77 early, but didn't fire another shot.
Hobart still finished as one of the good news stories of the WBBL, and everyone's second team. But no one likes that tag for long. They will return next year with more respect and loftier ambitions.
Without doubt the league's most compelling tale, the Sixers fell just one win short of what would have been one of the most unlikely title wins in any sport.
While losing their first six games, Ellyse Perry's team was a rabble, and the star all-rounder couldn't take a wicket or make a run. Needing eight wins in a row to make the finals, they knocked off exactly that, then a semi-final, only to fall short of a 10th win that would have made them champions.
South African import Marizanne Kapp was hypnotic with the new ball and at the death, regularly taking wickets while churning through her four overs for barely a dozen runs. Ignore Shabnim Ismail's two-game cameo for the Renegades, and Kapp 4.28 runs per over was the stingiest in the league.
Sarah Aley took 19 wickets alongside her, Lisa Sthalekar's emergence from retirement paid off with wickets and run-outs, and Perry bowled tidily while finishing third in the run-scoring with 430.
Sara McGlashan was perhaps the biggest star, her unbeaten 79 from 58 balls winning the last match of the season from a hopeless position, from 4-20 to 8-127 in a last-ball win that fired the Sixers into finals. Even without a title, the team in pink were more than impressive enough.
Wile Hurricanes felt a semifinal berth was an achievement, Perth must view their final-four exit as inadequate. A top order stacked with talent should have never been scrapping on the last weekend for the last available spot.
Scorchers didn't win more than twice in a row, lacking any momentum. This was illustrated in their home carnival after Christmas, doing the double over the Stars only to have the same treatment dished out by the travelling Thunder.
After a double loss to Adelaide, Scorchers had a fortnight to watch teams overtake them. They returned to Adelaide for two wins against Renegades, their reward another Adelaide Oval date for a knockout game. Their effort was appropriately mediocre, unable to overhaul 118 against Sydney Thunder's pack-bowling.
Captain and Australian opener Nicole Bolton never reached 50, nor did West Indies import Deandra Dottin, the record holder of the fastest T20 international ton. Ellyse Villani notched 326 runs, but her hit-and-miss pattern may have influenced her omission from the national team.
Charlotte Edwards ended second in the tournament with 464, while Suzie Bates from New Zealand rattled off 220 runs in eight hits. Opening bowlers Katherine Brunt and Nicky Shaw took 16 wickets apiece. But the pieces rarely came together at once. The best thing the Scorchers can do is put a line under this campaign and start again.
From start to finish, it was the same tired story: the team seemed to start and end with Meg Lanning. Any team featuring the world's best player will be seen as a contender, but the ranks behind the Australian captain looked thin.
To begin with, this wasn't exposed. Of course Lanning set the tone in beating the fancied Brisbane Heat twice on the trot, then went to Sydney to knock off the Sixers. Four and zip, three half tons to our protagonist, one dismissal, and all looked well.
From there, they won consecutive games only once as they shuffled from the top of the ladder to fifth. Lanning was player of the match in six of her team's seven wins. Her 560 runs had her first in the league, but Stars' next best was Katie Mack in 23rd.
England all-rounder Natlaie Sciver took 18 wickets, as did New Zealand seamer Morna Nielsen. Kristen Beams was the tournament's stand-out spinner before a thumb injury. But with the bat, Stars only proved the importance of depth.
A disappointment to rival Perth based on their list, Brisbane featured Australian all-rounders Jess Jonassen, Delissa Kimmince and Grace Harris alongside pacer Holly Ferling and England rep Lauren Winfield. When Harris belted a hundred off 55 balls in an early win, the team looked like a finals lock. By the end of the season they had crashed out of contention.
Brisbane's early ascendancy came from a schedule that packed 10 of their games in barely two weeks. Sure, they won five in a row to sit second, but that disguised their three opening losses. Brisbane stayed in the top four thanks to those wins in the bank, but won only two more games.
Like Scorchers, the component parts didn't fire. Kimmince with 17 and Ferling with 15 led the wickets. Harris made 103 runs in one innings and 186 in her other 11. Only the wicketkeeper and opener Beth Mooney stayed consistent, finishing strongly with 400 runs to sit third in the league before finals. Elevation to the national squad was her reward.
Seventh on the table, first in the Most Frustrating Award. Every team went into the last weekend of the regular season with a chance at progressing. Adelaide could have done so with three big wins on their home ground, but typically couldn't finish the job.
It could all have been so different for a team that turned in some brilliant displays. South Australia had just broken New South Wales' decade-long hold on the domestic 50-over title, and Strikers were essentially the same squad.
Teenage leg-spinner Amanda Wellington bowled stunning spells, with drift and drop and turn. Megan Schutt's swing bowling was at times unplayable. Star England wicketkeeper-batsman Sarah Taylor played some gems. Sarah Coyte, mostly a bowler, smashed 72 and 52* to win two games, and was the team's second-best run-scorer with 243. Sophie Devine produced a devastating 47 not out from 15 balls.
When charging down 149 against Thunder or 139 against Scorchers, you wondered how Strikers weren't top of the league. But too often, Taylor lacked batting support, and the bowling lacked penetration. A good spell from Schutt or Wellington could be played out and the runs made up elsewhere. All this translated to six wins for Adelaide, with at least as many opportunities lost.
The cellar-dwellers will look back at their 4-10 record and wonder what could have been. Good enough on television to beat crosstown rivals the Stars and then the table-topping Thunder, the pickings were slim when the cameras weren't rolling.
Simply, they didn't make enough runs. The highest scorer was Dane van Niekerk with 275 runs , which was 15th in the WBBL. Dannielle Wyatt's contributions with bat and ball earned a spot in the MVP top ten. But neither was qualified to play the middle-order lynchpin role asked of them.
The green shoots came in the form of two young spinners. Molly Strano's match-winning performances in the televised victories netted her 8-35 in total, propelling her to fourth in the league. Sophie Molineux impressed the selectors enough to make the Governor-General's XI. There's nothing positive about finishing last, but if the impressive Ismail can be lured back next year, and some strength added with the bat, an elevation to finals shouldn't be beyond them.
Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster on history, sport and politics. He edits the Australian literary publication Going Down Swinging. Adam Collins is a Melbourne based cricket writer and broadcaster