There was a sense of doom and déjà vu at the MCG last Friday night.
The Melbourne Stars folded in their chase against the Sydney Sixers to hand over a home final and evoke memories of last year's collapse against the Melbourne Renegades when the title was within their grasp.
It would be easy and crude to label it another choke. There are no guarantees in T20 cricket. But there's a dichotomy to the Stars that is hard to ignore. They have done so much right to put themselves in this position, with a chance to finally break their title drought.
Coach David Hussey said he would ask the hard questions of his players in the aftermath of the loss to the Sixers, in an effort to fix their execution and decision-making under pressure.
But no amount of hard questions will fix the dilemma, which is that their bowling has been so good because of the resources at their disposal, while their batting has been well below par because of a lack of them.
Bowling options galore
The Stars did not win 10 of 11 games by accident. Their bowling has been exceptional. The BBL is normally dominated by the best attacks and the Stars have invested in their resources recruiting bowlers in their two overseas slots as well an established international quick in Nathan Coulter-Nile. Haris Rauf has been the find of the season but spin has been one of their secret weapons.
The Stars spinners have taken 50 wickets this season, with no other side capturing more than 29, and have the lowest combined average in the league and the third-lowest combined economy rate. They have bowled 38 more overs of spin in the BBL than the Hobart Hurricanes, who sit second on the list. Their spinners have bowled more than half the overs in seven of the 15 matches, including more than 14 overs in two games.
One of those games was against the Perth Scorchers where they defended just 141 to win their 10th game of the season with 14 overs of spin, but captain Glenn Maxwell admitted it wasn't by design.
"Every game I write down how I think the 20 overs is going to go and I was pretty wrong that day," he said. "You have an idea of how the game is going to go and I think then you've just got to try and get a read on the batsman and what they look like they're comfortable in facing and at that stage it just looked like they were trying to work their way through the spin and wait for the quicks to come back on and so I just didn't allow them that pleasure."
The flexibility of the Stars' attack gives them so many options. They have recruited specifically to have all bases covered. They had two world-class right arm legspinners in Adam Zampa and Sandeep Lamichhane, which meant the latter's exit for international duty was not too impactful, a left-arm wristspinner in Clint Hinchliffe, as well as the part-time right-arm offspin of Maxwell and left-arm orthodox of Nic Maddinson.
Maxwell has been able to bowl himself in the powerplay which means he can use as much spin as he needs later in the innings.
"I suppose it's just about key match-ups and trying to read the conditions, as well as I, can," he said. "I'm putting myself in those positions where it's allowing other people to bowl a bit deeper into the game. I'm sort of planning a bit more at the back end and allowing ourselves a few more options and if I do that deep into the match.
The Stars' list was not necessarily designed to make spin a feature but rather have every potential match-up option available at Maxwell's disposal. They recruited Coulter-Nile and overseas signing, Dale Steyn, to add speed to an attack that was light on for extra pace last season. They couldn't believe their luck in finding Rauf when Steyn and his replacement, England's Pat Brown, both suffered injuries.
The qualifier against the Sixers was a great example of how Maxwell isn't beholden to spin. Unlike most sides, the Sixers top four of Josh Philippe, James Vince, Steve Smith, and Moises Henriques have good records against spin, whereas their middle order of Daniel Hughes and Jordan Silk do not.
Maxwell only used eight overs of spin in total, keeping it away from Henriques in particular in the middle overs, and calling in Marcus Stoinis to supplement his quicks.
The plan may change for Sydney Thunder on Thursday with spin more likely to be the better option to the in-form Alex Hales, Usman Khawaja, and Callum Ferguson, while the pace of Rauf will surely be held back for Alex Ross.
But the bowling resources and match-ups are not their concern.
Revolving door at the top
While the Stars have built a bowling attack that is the envy of the league, their batting is their biggest problem. The heavy reliance on Stoinis and Maxwell is well known. The pair have claimed nine Player of the Match awards between them in the past two seasons out of 17 awarded to Stars players. Peter Handscomb and Nick Larkin are the only other Stars batsmen to have won one.
Larkin's came this season in a win over the Sydney Thunder but it has been Stoinis and Maxwell who have carried the load again. It would be easy to point fingers at the lack of output from the other Stars batsmen, but some questions need to be asked of how the top order has been shaped. The Stars have used 11 players in their top three in the last two seasons.
Only the Perth Scorchers and Melbourne Renegades have used more. The Scorchers have missed finals in both seasons while the Renegades finished last this year. They did win the tournament last season but it came in miraculous circumstances with their batting group mustering just three half-centuries for the tournament.
Stoinis has been the only banker in the top three, having had a couple of outstanding years. But even he became an opener by accident. He went in first for the Stars in BBL05 and averaged 16.90 with a strike-rate of just 98.83 in 10 matches. He opened just once in the next two seasons and played the first three games of last season at No. 4 and 5 before moving to the top alongside Ben Dunk.
Hilton Cartwright had formed a nice combination with Stoinis this season, which included a record partnership against the Sixers, until he broke his finger, but he too ended up opening by accident. He had been recruited as a middle-order player with a modest T20 record having never opened in his previous 39 T20 innings.
The Stars' management team would have banked on more from the recruitment of Dunk and Maddinson in recent years. Dunk was twice the tournament's leading scorer in BBL03 and BBL06 and has played T20 cricket for Australia, but has not been able to keep his place in the team this season, averaging just 12.00 and striking at 113.51. Maddinson arrived last season having been Sixers leading scorer in BBL 07. While his form in Sheffield Shield cricket for Victoria has been stunning his BBL returns have been startling. A broken forearm badly affected last year's tournament, but this season he is averaging 11 and striking at 90.41.
Given the frailty of the top three and the reliance on Stoinis, there is a case for Maxwell to move higher in the order to avoid being left with too much to do. He is world renowned as a post-powerplay specialist and very few players can do what he does in the middle and death overs. The Stars have been loathed to use him inside the powerplay given he is such a valuable commodity and he himself has been keen to wait for the toughest part of the chases.
"I think it's probably been more situational," Maxwell said. "I try and put myself in the game when there's a position or a time when I think I can win us the game, and then I generally think if I'm there at the end we should be on the winning side of it and I've basically tried to judge it like that."
But he has a T20I century opening the innings and his numbers batting in the first three are better than his career statistics, with a slightly better average, better strike-rate and a better ratio of 50-plus scores per innings.
Openers can win BBL finals with one exceptional innings, just as Jake Weatherald, Usman Khawaja, Michael Klinger, and Luke Pomersbach have proven in the past.
There is a case to be made in a league of limited resources, with just two overseas players and a relatively small salary cap by global standards, that your best players should be used to set the tone rather arrest the momentum.
It is an old way of thinking in a modern game that has long since evolved into a game for specialised roles, but the Sixers opted to shift Philippe from the middle order to the top late last season despite providing immeasurable value in the death overs. They found he can set the tone at the top and they now have the most balanced line up in the finals and are favourites to take the title.
Moving Maxwell to the top three could decide a final one way or the other. However, it would go against a plan that worked for them successfully for 10 games earlier in the season, but hasn't seen them win any of their last four.
Nothing short of a title will keep the 'c' word at bay for the Stars. It would be harsh given the injury setback to Cartwright and the loss of Lamichhane to international duty. But the Adelaide Strikers won a final without Rashid Khan and the Melbourne Renegades won their title without Mohammad Nabi.
The teams that have won all three finals so far have utilised their best resources early to get ahead of the game.