Last piece of BBL puzzle falls into place

Michael Hussey is cheered off the SCG Getty Images

How fitting that one of the last qualifying matches of a wildly successful Big Bash League would provide the final piece in the puzzle for the tournament's creators. Over the first four editions of the BBL, all it appeared to be lacking was a vibrant and genuine rivalry between two Sydney teams of similar accomplishment.

On this night, in front of a record Sydney crowd for a domestic match, the once downtrodden Thunder all but qualified for the BBL finals for the very first time, courtesy of their second win over the formerly overlord Sixers this tournament. It was a victory built upon the power of Shane Watson and Andre Russell, the spin of Fawad Ahmed and the depth of a squad carefully constructed to succeed. A nervous wait on the results of the final two qualifying matches is a small price for Michael Hussey's men to pay.

How different things had been four years ago, when the Sixers and Thunder started out on ostensibly level footing, but soon shared about as much in common as the Sydney suburbs of Vaucluse and Rooty Hill. Being based at the SCG was a major advantage for the Sixers, as shown by how the majority of the New South Wales squad gravitated quickly towards the magenta-clad side. Brad Haddin summed it up when he signed on:

"The thing I'm most looking forward to is getting back to the SCG and playing T20 here. I didn't enjoy that much playing out at ANZ Stadium, this is the Sydney Cricket Ground for a reason, so I think from that point of view the guys who are at the Sixers are very lucky and privileged to get T20 back here and play some cricket."

Other advantages came in the form of a strong backroom, staffed by Stuart Clark as the inaugural general manager and Trevor Bayliss as the first coach. By comparison, the Thunder's John Dyson and Shane Duff were a more modest pairing, and their limitations were to be demonstrated by a lopsided initial playing list that splurged a major portion of the team's $1 million salary cap on Chris Gayle and David Warner, then precious little on the rest.

After winning their first two matches, the Thunder went on a 19-match losing streak over three seasons that was to cost Duff and Dyson their jobs while a stack of players were turned over besides. This summer's new ABC commentators Chris Rogers and Dirk Nannes could share plenty of rueful tales about issues that went beyond the playing surface to logistics and simple preference - signing top quality players to head out west was often an insurmountable problem.

Meanwhile, the Sixers did not make the smoothest of starts, but found their way through the first competition and emerged as winners over the Perth Scorchers in Perth, thanks in large part to the burgeoning leadership skills of a young captain by the name of Steven Smith. The Sixers would go on from there to lift the Champions League T20 crown in South Africa in 2012, a rich prize adding greatly to the money the club had available.

Out west, the Thunder looked on enviously but somewhat helplessly, resigned to the slow grind from laughing stock to respect. Numerous figures helped along the way, notably the accomplished Sri Lankan coach Chandika Hathurasinghe and a high energy general manager in Nick Cummins. This duo were in place when the losing streak was broken in January 2014, a source of great relief to all at the club.

But it was the recruitment of a pair of highly regarded global T20 travelers who played the key role in getting the Thunder into position to be a genuine force. Hussey brought boundless competitiveness, a matchless example in training and a vast knowledge of T20 - it can be said he wrote the book on how to bat in the 21st century, and in 2015 he actually did: 'Winning Edge: Behind the Scenes of Elite Cricket'.

Hussey's experience in the IPL allowed him to cross paths with Paddy Upton, the South African thinker, motivator, psychologist and cricket coach who has used some unorthodox methods to get the Thunder functioning as a unit. Unlike Shane Warne, among others, Hussey was an avowed fan of John Buchanan when he coached the Australian side, and Upton's belief in process-driven outcomes and the overcoming of fear strikes a similar chord.

As the Thunder have built, the Sixers have been forced to contend with the kinds of problems created by their own success. Clark moved on, Bayliss left to coach England, Smith became captain of Australia, and another inaugural signing Watson found himself moving to join his national team-mate and good friend Hussey at the Thunder, via Brisbane. This season, a treasure trove of coaches - Greg Shipperd, Darren Berry, Geoff Lawson and Trent Johnston - have provided something of a departure from Bayliss' methods, while also contending with a surfeit of injuries.

All these problems came together this night, as the Thunder proved themselves to be, at last, the superior of the two Sydney sides. Watson and Russell provided the visitors with explosive hitting, while the guile of Fawad was pivotal in deceiving an in-form Nic Maddinson and duly exposing the Sixers' lack of depth in power batting. Watching proudly from the sidelines was Jacques Kallis, and from Melbourne Usman Khawaja - there was a time not so long ago when two such absentees would have holed the Thunder below the waterline.

For Hussey, this was a fitting capstone to his tenure at the Thunder, at an end after BBL05. For Upton, it was a vindication of his processes and motivation, despite the loss of four consecutive matches after wins in the initial three. For Cummins it was an end product for all his assiduous work to get the Thunder competitive, putting the right team in place and also moving the team from the catacombs of Sydney Olympic Stadium to the warmer surrounds of Spotless.

And if the majority of the 38456 spectators went home disappointed, they also did so with the kinds of thoughts that have taken five years to settle upon the harbour city - at last, on any given day, the Thunder are just as much chance of success as the Sixers.