Midway through last season's Big Bash League, the Sydney Thunder were travelling nicely with Joe Root and Jos Buttler playing vital roles in the batting order as the club set themselves to challenge for the title. However, when England came calling, both had to take their leave, leaving Chris Jordan and Anton Devcich to try to cover in their contrasting roles.
This time around, the Thunder were seeking quality players, match-winners and mentors for a youngish squad, but most of all the coach Shane Bond was after two players who he could rely upon to have for the entire season, the better to build his plans around. In this context, an early thought about plucking Tom Banton from Somerset was discarded, and the club went for two players who were, on the face of it, down on their luck.
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Alex Hales had been discarded from the England World Cup squad in ignominious fashion, while Chris Morris had been left without a South Africa central contract. Such events might have been unpalatable for the players, but they offered Bond and the Thunder the chance to sign them for the duration, and the advantages have been seen in how each man has been able to come gradually to the boil at exactly the right time for their team.
After a hot and cold start, Hales has found a truly telling rhythm with the bat, with scores of 85, 63, 47, 59 and 60 in his past five innings as the Thunder surged into the newly created fifth finals spot and now all the way to a chance to play for a spot in the final against the Melbourne Stars. Morris, with vital wickets and runs, has been little less vital to the team's late progress. Together, they appear to have timed their runs perfectly, benefiting from being able to settle down in Sydney.
"That was one of the things we found challenging last year, we had some really good overseas players, Jos and Joe, and you just felt like they were getting into the tournament and then had to leave, then we had two other players come in with Chris Jordan and Anton Devcich trying to find their feet," Bond told ESPNcricinfo. "So one of the things we wanted to do this year was add two players who we thought would be here the whole time.
"Alex was the first target, I've spent a bit of time coaching against him and seen him for a long time, know he's a world class batter. Getting a guy who was motivated because the T20 World Cup was coming up meant it was an opportunity for us to have him for the whole tournament but also an opportunity for him to push his claims to get back into that England set-up. [Chris Botherway] our GM knows him, I know him and he's fitted in brilliantly.
"With Chris we were looking for that allrounder and as it turned out when we contacted Chris, he'd been told about two days earlier that South Africa weren't going to contract him again, so we wrapped him up pretty quick, then he got a chance to play in the World Cup. He's the same, we've seen once the tournament got past that halfway point, where they've really started to kick into gear, especially Chris now he's going great."
For Callum Ferguson, in his first season as captain of the Thunder, reliable top order runs from Hales and Usman Khawaja have been as gold to his leadership, being one less thing to worry about as he concocts the many tactical plans and match-ups required to navigate the BBL's seven opposing teams and a myriad of different pitch and weather conditions.
"Alex has really come into his own in the back half of the tournament, and Usman's been chipping in quite nicely in and around him - that partnership is waxing quite nicely," Ferguson said. "Ideally we get a bit of a start out of those guys, but certainly our top four have been able to put together some really match-winning combinations and contributions. We don't want to put too much pressure on those two, because we feel like we've got weapons all the way through the batting list.
"Alex being able to be here for the entire tournament has certainly helped him. Batting in sides you haven't played with before can be a little bit tricky to start with, just finding your feet, getting to know the guys you're batting with. We feel like we've got good continuity in our top five in particular and feel like we're starting to hit our straps at the right time. Alex is a world-class cricket player and we certainly thought he was really going to have an impact this season and the way he's come through with the goods in the past five or six weeks has been outstanding and certainly been a fantastic contributor for us."
The Banton discussion intrigues given his subsequent signing by the Brisbane Heat, who have now secured the 21-year-old to a longer deal. "We talked about Tom Banton early on as a player, then you look at your group and we're not an overly experienced group," Bond said. "We think we've got some of the best young talent in the country, Ollie Davies and Tanveer [Sangha] at the [Under-19] World Cup, Jason Sangha, Arjun Nair was out last year, Matt Gilkes is extremely exciting, Brendan Doggett.
"So they hadn't played massive amounts, and what I wanted were hardened professionals, Alex is a hardened professional, he's played everywhere around the world for 10 years and Chris is the same, so two guys who were going to add off the field as well as on it. Tom has been awesome for Brisbane, but he's 21 and I thought having someone like that coming in new would be a little bit more of a challenge for the group. What Chris and Alex bring off the field is just as important as on it as well."
Off-field behaviour, of course, was a central issue in Hales' England exit, and Bond reasoned, pragmatically, that in those circumstances it was a fairly safe bet that the Thunder would not be troubled by a cricketer who was trying to make reputation improvements in addition to scoring plenty of powerful runs. "I never thought there was ever going to be a problem with that stuff," Bond said. "We always saw it as, if mistakes were made off the field then you're done almost, you're at that point in your career, so you just can't afford to do that. He's fit seamlessly into our environment."
Bond had previously been struck by Hales' power and clean striking when coaching against him in New Zealand. Ahead of the MCG date with the Stars, he was hoping for something similar."He whacked it, I know that, he put it on the roof in Wellington a few times," Bond said. "You're after that player, that was a few years ago but you watch his impact in the Blast and around the world, he's got that ability to take the game away from teams at the start of an innings but then just keep accelerating and go big.
"That's what we were wanting, someone who when Rashid Khan and those good spinners are operating can still belt them. He's got good starts for us and made 60 off 30, the sorts of innings that really impact on a T20 game. He's an imposing character at the crease as well, Uzzy is a bit shorter, equally as dominant a player, but Alex a different stature at the other end - he can be an intimidating player to bowl to.
"It's sort of taken the pressure off Usman. Because he's such a fine player at the other end, we just wanted Uzzy to go out and play and not have the pressure that it was all on him. Uzzy can just turn up and belt a hundred, so to have two such good players, and Ferg behind them, we've always felt if those guys face the bulk of the balls we're going to be there or thereabouts, and our bowling attack is getting better and better."
As for the future, Bond is decidedly hopeful that both Hales and Morris will be back next season - whether or not they are selected for the T20 World Cup on these shores. "Whether they'll have a role in that I'm not quite sure, but I'd love them both to come back," he said.
"You talk to Usman, he's done the overseas role and it's not an easy one to walk into, the competition is tough, the wickets are tough, the quality is good, for anybody to be able to walk back into a team and know exactly how it operates and know the conditions you're walking into, I think it's a really up side. The way the Renegades have won it and the Strikers have won it, that's around having continuity with their overseas players as well. So that's an important thing."