SYDNEY: Australia duty giveth, Australia duty taketh away. Sydney Thunder were hoisted to a narrow victory by the newly available Usman Khawaja over a previously high-flying Perth Scorchers side that lacked Jhye Richardson, AJ Tye, Shaun and Mitchell Marsh among others. In doing so, Khawaja kept the Thunder in contention to squeeze into the Big Bash League semi-finals, while also giving Adelaide Strikers a chance to go a game clear of the Scorchers at the top of the table.
Cameron Bancroft and Hilton Cartwright made a bold bid to chase down the Thunder’s total in the closing overs, with one Cartwright straight six managing to hit the top of the grandstand at the Sydney Showgrounds. However Mitchell McClenaghan, who had not enjoyed the best of evenings, was able to find a wide yorker when he needed to with five runs to defend off the final ball of the match.
“He just goes out there and looks from ball one that he’s been batting for three hours already. No obvious weakness, no obvious time that it takes him to build into his innings. From ball one he knows his game so well.” With these words Pat Cummins had described Steven Smith’s domination of the Ashes series, but he might just as easily have been talking about the way Khawaja took up where he had left off when dismissed at the SCG after making 171.
Khawaja had not played a single BBL match last season, but his innings here, opposite Kurtis Patterson, Shane Watson and Callum Ferguson, showed the combination of smooth aggression and strike rotation that had helped him dominate the Thunder’s victorious 2015-16 tournament. One straight six off the bowling of Ashton Agar, where he danced down and drove high and long, was so picturesque as to resemble the posed shot he is playing in an advertisement for a popular brand of deodorant this summer. The Thunder will hope he can continue the upward trend throughout the rest of the tournament.
Ferguson was happy to find singles to put Khawaja on strike in a 54-run partnership that seemed set to take the Thunder near 200, but when the left-hander fell to a skier the hosts needed more acceleration from the set batsman. However Ferguson is yet to hit a six in this BBL, and striking in the region of 118 per 100 balls is short of the level of attack the late overs need.
As a result Sydney stuttered notably in the back half of the innings, only twice topping double figures in the closing 10 overs. Mitchell Johnson and Joel Paris could both be happy with their bowling figures, while Agar was also able to keep things relatively tight despite missing out on Khawaja’s wicket when Bancroft was unable to complete a stumping from a flat and fullish delivery the batsman played over the top of.
In an alternate universe, Gurinder Sandhu is a leading seam bowler in England, bending the Dukes ball at will and using his height to generate edge-catching bounce on grassy strips. In this one, he has slipped from the fringes of the Australian squad – touring India with Australia A in 2016 and also playing ODIs for his country – to the edge of the New South Wales system, and a far from consistent berth in the Sydney Thunder line-up.
But on this night he was able to demonstrate the sort of trajectory, wrist position and movement that had first attracted the interest of talent spotters. Late new ball outswing made life exceptionally hard for two Australian Test batsmen in Bancroft and Adam Voges, either side of a probable future Australian cricketer in Ashton Turner being completely flummoxed by a slower ball yorker that pinned him on the back foot in front of the stumps. Fawad Ahmed was able to follow-up with a perfect wrong’un to Voges, leaving the Scorchers in a position from which Bancroft and Cartwright had no choice but to throttle back.
“I’m getting sick of all these dropped catches” spat Mark Waugh on Ten’s commentary, after McClenaghan had grassed a straightforward chance from Cartwright, to follow up an even simpler chance from Bancroft that Ben Rohrer allowed to burst through his hands. The standard of catching in the BBL has been generally deplorable, and these mistakes served to allow the Scorchers to stay in the contest for far longer than they had a reasonable right to.
Having let the required run rate blow out into the region of 12.5 runs per over, Bancroft and Cartwright then started to peg back the lost ground with big hits, the former taking 10 from the next two balls after Chris Green had been let down by Rohrer’s miss.
Green was again the bowler (albeit delivering a loose leg side full toss) when McClenaghan reprieved Cartwright, who smote sixes off the balls immediately before and after the drop.
The hitting increased in intensity to a point when Cartwright deposited McClenaghan’s second ball of the final over onto the roof of the stand at long on, and a subsequent no-ball for a delivery reaching the batsman above waist height on the full seemed to have tilted the balance towards the Scorchers. But McClenaghan was able to find the lines and lengths to jam Cartwright and Bancroft with the game on the line, keeping the Thunder in contention despite their many errors.