Mission: rebuilding Melbourne Renegades
The bottom-placed club for the last two seasons have a strong pace attack for this campaign under new coach David Saker
The only way is up. That's the approach new Melbourne Renegades coach David Saker wants his team to take heading into a new era.
In the last three seasons, Renegades have lived the Ricky Bobby mantra from the film Talladega Nights.
If you're not first, you're last.
From winning the title in extraordinary circumstances in 2018-19 under coach Andrew McDonald, they had two disastrous seasons under Michael Klinger winning just seven of 28 games to finish last on the table two years running. Last season they lost seven games in a row after winning their season opener.
Klinger resigned to take up a role at Cricket New South Wales as head of male cricket, opening the door for Saker to return to the club he coached in 2015-16, and return to coaching full stop after some time away following a long stint as Australia's bowling coach.
But he's aware of the challenge he faces with such a young batting group. Sam Harper, Mackenzie Harvey and Jake Fraser-McGurk are set to fill the top three spots early in the tournament, with new captain Nic Maddinson and Marcus Harris away on national duty, while Australia T20I skipper Aaron Finch and Shaun Marsh are injured.
"The good thing about it and I've talked a lot to the players about it, right at the moment we're on top of the ladder," Saker told ESPNcricinfo. "So a lot of times they came in last year and after one and six starts or two and seven starts, the pressure is even bigger on them.
"They know that when you go out to play any game of cricket, you're under pressure. But at least they know now, we're going to have three or four games, we're going to be the ones to win the game. So we're not going to be relying on Shaun Marsh and Nic Maddinson, we might have Finchy but it's touch and go. So we're preparing pretty much for if he doesn't play but if he does, that's a bonus. And it's just giving the confidence to them. They've trained really well. I think their game plans are pretty close to where you want them to be. And we're sort of making sure we give the specific roles for certain players."
So we know we've got to get some runs and we know if we do we can become a little bit like the Perth Scorchers did when they were strong. They just had such a great defensive game, they're so hard to score off, they fielded well, had great options with the ballDavid Saker on Melbourne Renegades' gameplan
Klinger spent hours working with Harvey and Fraser-McGurk last season trying to upskill the pair on T20 batting. Neither of them needed to learn anything from a pure ball-striking perspective, but the art of constructing an innings in T20 cricket is not something that can be developed overnight. Victoria coach Chris Rogers has spoken to Fraser-McGurk about "taking the stairs" rather than "the elevator" in his journey to becoming a top-class cricketer. But in T20 franchise cricket, development and winning don't go hand in hand. Saker is aware of the predicament, just as Klinger was.
"Frase is the most exciting cricketer I've seen in a long time," Saker said. "He's like a young Glenn Maxwell, a young Steven Smith. But he hasn't got anything to back that up yet. So he needs runs, but we've got to give him a bit of freedom. Mackenzie Harvey has played a bit. He's the one that's got to play a little bit like an older statesman, [and] he's only 21.
"But he's got to play like...the best T20 players, generally the more experienced players. If you look at Kohli, Dhoni, if you look at Brad Hodge, the way they just construct their innings to take the game right down to the 18th over and then they make a decision whether they go or whether they don't go, but they're never ever losing the game until late, where sometimes kids pull the trigger in the 11th or 12th over. You've got more time than you think."
Saker laughed at the notion that you can't buy experience off the shelf and agrees with Dan Christian's principle that "old blokes win stuff."
But what he does have at his disposal is a phenomenal attack thanks to some targeted recruiting. England left-arm seamer Reece Topley joins Kane Richardson and James Pattinson in a formidable pace trio that looks every bit as good as the attack that won Renegades the title three years ago. Mohammad Nabi returns as does legspinner Cameron Boyce after missing all of last season. Left-arm wristspinner Zahir Khan comes across from Melbourne Stars to balance the spin options nicely while Will Sutherland is set for a role as a power-hitting all-rounder.
"That's really exciting with that dynamic," Saker said. "I think we've got the best bowling attack in the league.
"But your bowling options are pretty useless if you're defending 100 every week. So we know we've got to get some runs and we know if we do we can become a little bit like the Perth Scorchers did when they were strong. They just had such a great defensive game, they're so hard to score off, they fielded well, had great options with the ball. Their 150 just seemed like a bigger score all the time. So that's what we're going to be aiming to do. If we can snag a few wins with the young kids in the team, you never know, we could get on a roll quite easily."
That blueprint worked at Marvel Stadium in 2018-19, when Renegades won the title with their batters scoring just three individual half-centuries for the season.
Saker isn't sure what a pass mark is for his team given the youth of his squad. But he isn't going to put a ceiling on it.
"That's a good question because the pass mark could look different for where we end up on the ladder," Saker said. "But there's no doubt our expectation is to make finals.
"It's not unrealistic to finish fifth and by the time that part of the season gets there you will hope some of the younger players have really stood up or our older players come back and put us in a position and, you know, once you get to finals, you're three good games away from the title.
"You could probably ask me that question at the end of the season and if we finish third, but we didn't do some things that we could have done better I would say it's a fail. But if [we get] the development into the players I want, it'll be a big pass. We want to make finals and we expect to make finals."
Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo