Everyone is back in town
Halfway through the third weekend of the Women's Big Bash League, three teams remained winless. On Sunday all of them broke through. With 14 games to play for each team, there is still time for a winning streak to carry any side into the final.
The Adelaide Strikers did it in the most explosive style. The Sydney Thunder would have thought they were cruising after Naomi Stalenberg's early onslaught of 39 from 19 balls, as the Strikers tried eight bowlers to no avail.
But, facing an imposing 149 to win, the Strikers' English star Sarah Taylor opened the innings with an unbeaten 71 from 47 balls, running down the highest successful WBBL chase with an over to spare.
For the Melbourne Renegades it was all about strangulation, as imported all-rounders Danielle Wyatt and Dane van Niekerk took 4 for 13 and 4 for 20 from their respective spells to hold a strong Brisbane Heat side to 110.
Beth Mooney raised her fourth half-century of the tournament to stay top of the runs list, but aside from Lauren Winfield's 26, the rest of the Heat's batting card resembled a phone number. There were no problems in the chase, with van Niekerk (26) and Wyatt (28*) doing the business in both disciplines.
The Sydney Sixers have looked a shambles so far with marquee player Ellyse Perry down on form and no one backing her up. However, South African international Marizanne Kapp came to the fore against the Perth Scorchers at the SCG with a suffocating opening spell.
Her five dot balls at the start of the match provoked Elyse Villani into skying an ugly slog to the wicketkeeper. Kapp then dried up the runs for Nicole Bolton until the Scorchers skipper missed a big shot and was bowled for 2 from 10 balls. In between, Perry had bowled England captain Charlotte Edwards off her pads, leaving the Scorchers at 3 for 14. Kapp had returns of 2 for 4 in three overs and would finish her day with 3 for 9.
The Scorchers recovered thanks to a brilliant 51 from New Zealand international Suzie Bates, an innings that was ended by an equally brilliant run-out from her compatriot Sarah McGlashan.
Even a chase of 108 looked steep for the Sixers' fragile batting, but Perry followed up her 2 for 20 by batting through the innings for 32 not out, providing the cohesion. Kapp, meanwhile, brought momentum with her 17 from 19 balls, falling to a poor lbw decision from umpire Claire Polosack to a ball that was pitching and hitting well outside off stump. Luckily the decision could not prevent the end of a seven-game losing streak for the team in pink.
And at the other end of the table, for consistency's sake, the previously unbeaten Hobart Hurricanes had their first defeat on Saturday, when the Scorchers kept them to 109 for 8, and chased the score down with four wickets to spare.
A round for the big names from abroad
The WBBL's drawcard is that it assembles cricketing talent, not just frothe domestic pool but internationally. In its first season, the tournament has immediately become a carnival of the best players on the planet.
Sarah Taylor, who has previously been named both ODI and T20 Player of the Year, falls into that elite category. As do van Niekerk and Wyatt, who play for South Africa and England respectively.
The other S Taylor - the West Indies Women's captain, Stafanie - has been consistent throughout. Her returns of 59*, 30, 35, 11 and 43 are not eye-catching on paper, but have been so on the field, given their stylish manufacture. They leave her sixth on the run-scoring charts after only five innings, and have helped the Thunder make the top four after playing only five games.
The Hurricanes captain and principal import, England vice-captain Heather Knight, continues to do no wrong. Before the Scorchers finally ended Knight's winning streak, her 74 was the defining innings in the side's previous one-run win against Scorchers. Knight's self-styled Lilac Ladies have firmed their position as the close-finish specialists.
Encouraging, too, for the Hurricanes was Hayley Matthews' breakout performance. After a run of single digit scores, the huge-hitting, 17-year-old from Barbados was moved up to open with Knight, and plundered 77 in 51 balls to end what had been an unbeaten run for the Melbourne Stars. Winning streaks or not, the Hurricanes remain on top of the ladder.
…and the big names at home
Their surge after three opening losses has been underpinned by 21-year-old opening batsman and wicketkeeper Mooney. With incumbent national stumper Alyssa Healy in indifferent batting form, Mooney seems to be making a case for a national call up.
Not far behind her on the runs tally, from half the number of innings, is the Australian captain. Meg Lanning did what Meg Lanning does: a half-century to knock off the Sixers in their first leg, and 37 unbeaten to see off a chase in the second.
Lanning's team-mate in the baggy green and the Stars cap, Kristen Beams, collected seven more frugal wickets over the weekend to assert why she is the most potent spinner in the land. Delissa Kimmince, meanwhile, is the unlikely wicket-taking leader at this stage of the competition.
Everything else was big, so the audiences were too
Who would have thought: if you screen it, they will watch. Watch they did. Channel Ten and Cricket Australia are to be applauded for televising selected WBBL fixtures this season, and they have been immediately rewarded.
A quarter of a million people watched the Heat beat the Sixers on Saturday, and nearly 200,000 more when the Sixers surprised the Scorchers early on Sunday. As one major newspaper noted, that's three times the number who watched the domestic A-League football.
So successful was the debut that Ten have immediately announced they will shift the Melbourne derby on January 2 onto their main channel, having originally planned to screen it on secondary digital channel One. Such an early experiment to further test local appetite is an excellent sign for the game. Five others are due to be televised: December 31, January 1, January 9, January 16, and the final on January 24.
Between Boxing Day and New Year's Eve we have a four-game carnival at the WACA in Perth, where the Scorchers will host the Stars and t Thunder. In the context of the season, with all three sides travelling well, these are vital fixtures in determining the final four.