Sydney Thunder 6 for 172 (Ferguson 73*, Swepson 2-11) beat Brisbane Heat 143 (Green 2-19, Nair 2-21, Cook 2-29) by 29 runs
Sydney Thunder's captain Callum Ferguson followed up a masterly innings with a calm marshalling of his troops in the field to deliver his side a decisive victory over an unbalanced Brisbane Heat combination in front of a Gabba crowd of 26,784 in the opening match of the ninth Big Bash League.
After winning the toss and choosing to bat, Ferguson shrugged off the visitors' loss of three wickets in the powerplay to form critical partnerships with Alex Ross and Chris Green and then go on the attack in the final overs. A tally of 172 was far from unattainable, but the Heat's decision to play six bowlers and only five specialist batsmen meant that when they also lost three early wickets, there was nothing in reserve.
That allowed Ferguson to make strong use of his spin bowlers Jono Cook, Chris Green and Arjun Nair, who plucked six wickets between them and ensured the Heat were never really much of a chance. Their fortunes made for an intriguing contrast with Mitchell Swepson, who despite bowling nicely and snaring two wickets of his own, was only granted two overs by Chris Lynn as the Heat captain tried to make use of more bowlers than he actually seemed to need.
Heat dodge hurricane Khawaja
Usman Khawaja was handed some clarifying news at the start of the day, with his omission from the Australia ODI team to tour India in January confirming that he would be playing a full BBL for Sydney Thunder. Frustrating as this may have been, it isn't necessarily all bad: last time Khawaja did, in 2014-15, he was the player of the tournament and the Thunder won it all.
Batting first on a pleasant evening in Brisbane, Khawaja certainly played with clarity of thought, nailing five boundaries in 12 balls as he looked to impose himself on proceedings. He was helped by an lbw reprieve in the opening over from Josh Lalor, when a double noise appeared to come from the ball hitting both pads rather than any bat - a modicum of justice for Khawaja after a series of adverse decisions during the Sheffield Shield.
But a swift and well-directed Lalor bouncer drew enough of a top edge on a hook shot to deliver a catch to Sam Heazlett at fine leg, allowing the Heat to pull things back. When Alex Hales and Matt Gilkes followed soon after, also picking out Heazlett in the outfield, the Thunder wobbled to 3 for 44 after the powerplay, and when the broadcasters got their wish with the first "strategic time out" of the BBL after seven overs, the captain Ferguson and coach Shane Bond reckoned 160 would be a reasonable target from the remaining allocation.
It's been a little over a decade since Ferguson made his ODI debut for Australia, and the Gabba was the scene of his first half-century in a maddeningly brief international career given the quality of performances he put on when actually selected. Nevertheless, time and tide have allowed Ferguson to turn himself into one of Australia's most versatile white-ball batsmen.
This was underlined by how he turned the Thunder's recovery into a counter-attack and ultimately a full-blown offensive - pummelling 68 from the final six overs of the innings. Ferguson's ability to work the crease was demonstrated by how he coaxed a couple of full tosses out of Lalor, before another 13 were taken from the final over from Ben Laughlin, the Heat's recruit from Adelaide Strikers. An unbeaten 73 for Ferguson was aided by cameos from Ross and Green, before Nair managed to flick the final ball of the innings over the head of Brisbane's nominated wicketkeeper Tom Banton, who the ball before had given up four byes.
The Thunder were helped by a bizarre decision from the Heat, who in a bowling heavy line-up gave Mitchell Swepson just two overs returning 2 for 11, making him comfortably the best bowler of the innings. Called over for an interview with broadcasters at the end of the innings, Swepson could have been forgiven for asking whether or not his captain Lynn or coach Darren Lehmann had forgotten he was out there.
Brisbane all bashed out
In choosing only five specialist batsmen, the Heat were placing enormous emphasis on their top three to fire, and in Banton, Lynn and Max Bryant there is certainly plenty of hitting power. But Banton showed in equal measure his liking for pace by swatting three sixes off Daniel Sams' opening over - which also featured an attempted delivery that slipped completely from the bowler's grasp - and also his weakness against spin.
By flicking Jono Cook straight to deep midwicket in the second, Banton opened things up for the Thunder, and soon enough Bryant and Lynn also fell to miscued attempts to find the boundary. Lynn looked particularly agitated to shell a catch to cover off the bowling of Chris Tremain, because the task already looked too steep.
As much as he and Lehmann said on the air that the Heat were now in "exactly the same" position as the Thunder had been after three early wickets, they not only lacked the depth down the batting order to counter-attack effectively, but also had no player of the ability of Ferguson to rebuild and then relaunch. When noted hitter Ben Cutting walked to the middle, the Heat still needed 107 from 64 balls.
Thunder get full value from spin
Unlike the Heat, there was never any danger that Ferguson would not make the most of his spin bowlers. After Cook's success early in the innings, Chris Green and Arjun Nair followed up with more discipline, change of pace and intelligent use of line to coax the home side's lower order to hit towards deep fielders posted on the longer square boundaries.
Only once, when Cutting hoisted Sams for a pair of straight sixes, was Ferguson caught out in terms of where the batsman was hitting, and the left-armer soon made amends by delivering a nutmeg-yorker to crash into Cutting's stumps. And when it came to spin, Cook, Green and Nair were able to return the combined figures of 6 for 69 from 12 overs. This outstanding return left Swepson with still more reason to wonder at his use earlier in the night as he was dismissed by Nair.