BBL preview - Sydney Thunder
One of the more impressive teams last season, unfortunately for Thunder fans they just couldn’t quite produce the quality they’d shown previously in the knockout rounds. Nevertheless it was a positive season overall for them and was perhaps the first time they’d shown signs of being a top BBL team since they won it back in 2015/16.
There have been a couple of major changes at the helm during the off-season, with last season’s captain (Callum Ferguson) and head coach (Shane Bond) both departing from their roles. Former England coach Trevor Bayliss will take the reigns, who perhaps has a bit of a point to prove, after a disappointing couple of seasons with Sunrisers Hyderabad, not just from a results perspective but also in terms of their approach.
Usman Khawaja was originally announced as their skipper ahead of this season, however, after his call-up to the Ashes squad, Chris Green will lead the side in his absence. Former skipper - Callum Ferguson, has been released and while I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision, it’s a little surprising another club hasn’t signed him for this season.
Overseas players: Alex Hales, Sam Billings and Saqib Mahmood.
Like their Syndey counterparts, Thunder have gone with an all English trio for their overseas players this season. Two of those are returnees; Hales & Billings, who both played for the franchise last season, while Saqib Mahmood is getting his first taste of Big Bash cricket. Hales has two extremely successful seasons with the Thunder, scoring over 1100 runs at an average of 38 and strike rate of nearly 155. Billings had a middling campaign last season and will be eager to impress here, after sitting on the bench for Delhi/England in recent months.
Changes from last season’s squad:
Out: Callum Ferguson
In: Sam Whiteman & Gurinder Sandhu
Overall it’s a similar group to what we saw last season, which perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising, given how well they performed for large parts of the campaign. They’ve invested quite a bit in younger players, some of whom they’ve reaped rewards from already; Tanveer Sangha last season and Ollie Davies also showed flashes of huge potential. Others haven’t quite made the impact they’d like yet but could see more opportunities this season with Callum Ferguson not around and Usman Khawaja likely to miss the majority of the tournament.
- Brendan Doggett - Injured, with an unknown return date but ‘will miss the start of the tournament’. Arjun Nair has been signed as a replacement player.
- Ollie Davies - Suffered an injury playing Grade cricket, likely to miss the first few games, should be back around Christmas time.
- Saqib Mahmood - In the England lions squad, so will be miss the first three games.
- Usman Khawaja - Named in the Ashes squad, missing until Christmas, likely to be longer.
In my opinion, Sydney Thunder have one of the strongest trio’s. Not only are they good players, you know what you’re going to get from them; Hales will be an above average opener, Sam Billings is an adaptable cricketer - might not have a world class season but it’s unlikely he’ll let you down and Saqib Mahmood will be a wicket taking threat whenever he bowls.
Even though they’re missing a couple of key players early on, they still look like they’ll have the resources to be competitive. This is because they’ve got six or seven above average players, all of whom will play a different role; Hales - elite opener at this level, Alex Ross - one of the best players of spin, Billings - Can bat in various roles and doesn’t really have a weakness, Cutting - arguably the best ‘finisher’ in the competition, Sams - powerplay bowler/left arm option and high potential as a lower order hitter, Green - Contain-type spinner & offers a bit of batting depth & Sangha - wrist spinner.
All of this means it’s difficult to see them going on any losing runs with the quality they’ve got spread throughout the team. Saqib Mahmood will be the one big miss early on, as their pace bowling attack does look a bit weak.
There are three batting spots up for grabs early on with Khawaja, Ferguson and Davies all not around for various reasons and they were all regulars last season. I expect these spots to be competed for by Sam Whiteman, Alex Ross, Matt Gilkes, Baxter Holt and Jason Sangha:
I think the most likely scenario would be the three players I posted in the team above; Sam Whiteman, Alex Ross and Matt Gilkes. Whiteman will probably open, based on what the Thunder hierarchy have said about him and has been in good form in red ball cricket, not that it’s particularly relevant but that an his ‘experience’ is likely to give him a case ahead of others. Alex Ross should bat at 3/4 to utilise his game against spin, with a shorter powerplay, three could be the best bet. Matt Gilkes or Baxter Holt at five, Gilkes has apparently impressed in warm up matches so could get the nod. Jason Sangha is more of an anchor-type player and will probably bat at 3 if he plays.
In the absence of Saqib, Chris Tremain and Gurinder Sandhu will compete for the final bowling slot, although there is an option to go spin-heavy with one of Arjun Nair or Jono Cook.
- Boundary hitting - They were the best boundary hitting side last season. Hales, Cutting and Sams were all well above the tournament average for boundary percentage and Billings & Khawaja both had decent seasons, hitting 16.5% & 18.5% respectively. With four of these five available for the entire season, I expect Thunder to be up there with the best when it comes to boundary hitting again.
- Utilised power surge well - Sort of linked to the point above but Syndey Thunder were comfortably the best when it came to the power surge last season. Scoring at 12.74 rpo, which was 0.6 higher than the next best and they also managed to hit 36% of their deliveries in this phase for boundaries. Whether they use it with a set Hales/Billings at the crease or later on with Cutting/Sams, they look well set to exploit it.
- Pace bowling - In the first few matches, their pace bowling does look weak, there’s no escaping that. Even when Mahmood is available, it still looks like a pace bowling attack that could concede quite a lot of boundaries.
- Death overs bowling - This is the one area they look to have really lost out on, in comparison to last season. They were one of the best teams for bowling at the death last season but they’ve lost their most commonly used bowler - Adam Milne and while I believe Saqib Mahmood is a better bowler than his numbers in this phase suggest, he is a downgrade on Milne. Daniel Sams did a decent job last season in a limited sample size, however, his long-term numbers don’t suggest he is a good death overs bowler. Looks a problem area for Thunder that can’t be easily solved.
Team stats sheet:
Alex Hales - An incredible player at this level, Hales has dominated and his numbers have gone up a notch in the past couple of years. Averaging 35 and striking at 159 since the start of 2020, with a boundary percentage of nearly 25%. Also has good numbers against spin, even though I’m not convinced he is a great player of spin, he certainly attacks it and playing spin in a powerplay is a completely different skill and that’s where Hales excels. His record against spin in the first six overs; average - 40, strike rate - 176 & after that; average - 17, strike rate - 129, since the start of 2020. Expect him to be up there amongst the best openers, along with Wade & Philippe.
Sam Whiteman - Upon signing him, Thunder hierarchy suggested ‘Sam has a really good record batting in the top three for Perth Scorchers, a simple check would show this isn’t the case; an average of 19 and strike rate of 127 is hardly setting the world alight. A lot of these games were a while back, it’s possible he may have improved and is coming into the tournament on the back of some runs in Shield/Marsh cup, so let’s see how he goes.
Alex Ross - Could bat anywhere in the middle order, 3 or 4 would probably be best. Batting him at 5 probably wouldn’t utilise his ability against spin. His record against pace is unusually bad but with some strong pace hitters around him; Hales, Billings, Cuttings and Sams, he should do okay.
Sam Billings - Will be eager to have a standout tournament, to really get his name into consideration for a starting berth in the England time and further franchise deals. He had a reasonable seasons last time out, scoring 260 runs in 10 innings, at an average of just under 30 and strike rate of 143. Was very strong against pace, striking at over 150 and averaging almost 40. Expect his role to flexible and could bat in a variety of positions.
Matt Gilkes - His t20 record isn’t all that impressive, however, the last t20 game he played would’ve been when he was 20. It’s tough to judge and apparently he has been batting well in warm up games so could get the nod here.
Ben Cutting - One of the standout lower order hitters in this competition. Strong pace hitter and weak against spin, which shouldn’t be too much of an issue, given where he bats. Of players currently playing in the BBL, only Mitch Marsh has a better death overs strike rate than Cutting.
Daniel Sams - I’m expecting a big season from Sams, particularly with the bat. He’s one of the cleanest strikers around in my opinion and showed signs of big potential last season. Striking at almost 190 and of players that faced at least 100 balls, Sams had the best balls per six tally. A regular wicket taker with the ball, most commonly bowling in the powerplay but will probably bowl in all phases.
Chris Green - Stand-in captain with Khawaja involved in the Ashes. His reputation isn’t quite what it was a couple of years back, still a good enough bowler at BBL level for his role, which is to contain and limit runs where possible, not really going in search of wickets. Has shown brief signs of improving his power hitting game, might not get much of a chance to showcase that, likely to be batting at 8–9.
Nathan McAndrew - Took a few wickets last season but was one of the most expensive bowlers and had a higher boundary percentage conceded than any other bowler with a decent sample size. Will likely play as he offers some lower order hitting as well.
Tanveer Sangha - Australia are a country that are struggling to produce good t20 players at the moment, Tanveer Sangha seems to be an exception. Sangha had a brilliant debut campaign last season, taking 21 wickets. Slightly expensive for a leg spinner going at just over 8rpo, I’d expect that was mainly as a consequence of the type of games Thunder played in, often being high scoring matches. Between Swepson, Sangha and Hatzoglou, Australia looking to be building a decent crop of wrist spinners as back ups to Zampa in white ball cricket.
Chris Tremain - Powerplay dominant bowler, actually has impressive numbers in this phase, with a strike rate of 16, most of that was a couple of years back though. Hasn’t played as much in the past couple of seasons and when he has, it hasn't been too successful, only managing to take 8 wickets in 14 matches. Will likely be him or Sandhu that plays while Saqib Mahmood is unavailable.
Saqid Mahmood - An improving t20 bowler and is having a good 2021. Excellent wicket taker, can be a threat in all phases, whether that’s with the new ball or getting an older ball to reverse. 26 wickets in 60 overs bowled throughout 2021 so far, at a strike rate of under 14 and expecting him to add plenty to that tally in this tournament.
Ollie Davies - An intent machine that started last season incredibly, with 84 runs in his first two games at a strike rate of over 180, he also hit eight sixes in those two innings’. Unfortunately things didn’t go to plan after that and four single digit scores followed, he wasn’t completely backed and was dropped after a run of two poor scores and was introduced again later in the tournament. It was surprising to see a player with such obvious upside dropped so quickly, so hopefully when he is fully fit, he’ll get an extended run in the side this season.
Baxter Holt - Supposedly quite highly rated. Did well in his Marsh Cup debut last month, maybe next in line to play after Matt Gilkes.
Jason Sangha - Anchor-type batter, probably won’t play but you never know. Hasn’t exactly been banging on the door with outstanding performances in other formats either.
Jonathan Cook - Provides an option for the Thunder if they want to with a spin-heavy bowling line up. This could be a possibility at some point, given both Chris Green and Cook bowl quite a lot in the powerplay. Cook is a leg spinner but doesn’t get a huge amount of turn and mainly bowls with a flat trajectory. Has had a couple of solid seasons in the past but didn’t play much last campaign due to the emergence of Tanveer Sangha.
Arjun Nair - Similar to Cook, could play if they want to go spin-heavy or if there’s an injury to Chris Green. Arjun Nair is probably a slightly worse bowler than Cook but would add a bit of batting ability, although I’m not sure Thunder really need any added batting depth. Has a similar record against LHB’s & RHB’s, which could be deemed useful from a match up perspective.
Gurinder Sandhu - A second last-minute deal in as many years for Sandhu. Was a good performer in the early seasons of BBL but hasn’t really done anything of note in recent seasons. I’d probably play Tremain ahead of him.
Overall, I like this Thunder side again. My only issue is they haven’t really improved since last year. Unlike other teams though, they’ve got plenty of younger players in their squad, that should improve on a season by season basis.
As I pointed out earlier, they’ve got quality spread throughout the team, rather than focused in one particular area and that should serve them well over a 14 game tournament. Pace bowling does look weak but they make up for it in other area’s. I think they’ll finish in the top three.
Thanks for reading!