Thunder fluff lines with final in sight
The fumbling Sydney Thunder let a BBL Final slip through their fingers on Thursday night, with a ruthless Marcus Stoinis only needing one life to book the Melbourne Stars a date with destiny - weather permitting - at the SCG on Saturday.
Thunder wicketkeeper Jay Lenton grassed a sitter down the leg-side when Stoinis was just 19, with the massive moment almost instantly releasing the hoodoo pressure that had threatened to once again overwhelm the Stars in the finals.
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Stoinis exploded to smash 83 off 54 to cap off one of the most dominant BBL seasons in history and set up a rematch with the Sydney Sixers in the decider.
But the Hulk was almost outdone by Melbourne's underrated Sydney-expat Nick Larkin who pumped out an unbeaten 83 of his own which also came after he was dropped early in his innings.
Chasing an imposing 195 to win in front of another underwhelming crowd at the MCG, the Thunder were dead in the water the moment big-hitting Englishman Alex Hales was run out for just 8 thanks to the laser-arm of Stars fieldsman Nathan Coulter-Nile, who shot the stumps down from mid-on.
But Coulter-Nile doubled down to also knock over Usman Khawaja's stumps and destroy any chance of an all-Sydney final, despite the best efforts of Alex Ross (58 off 38).
The Melbourne Stars are one of Australian sport's great underachievers, but now their Finals' curse is at the mercy of Sydney's big wet.
Should a match be miraculously scraped out at the SCG on Saturday night, the Sixers will be very wary of the knockout power Stoinis, Glenn Maxwell - and for that matter, Larkin bring to the table.
The Sydney Thunder had never previously lost a BBL finals match, and shoddy fielding was to blame for that record ending.
Specialist keeper Lenton has all week been on edge with his wife on the verge of going into labour in Sydney, and the regulation chance he put down off Stoinis was described by Australia gloveman Tim Paine in the Channel 7 commentary box as a "keeper's nightmare."
It was a massive moment in the match, not only because the Stars' record is tethered to Stoinis' success at the top of the order, but because fellow opener Nic Maddinson was out to all-rounder Chris Morris on the previous delivery with just 38 on the board.
The missed chance to bring the mental demons back out for the Stars' was exacerbated when Daniel Sams misjudged a tough chance off Larkin in the deep when he was just 8 and struggling to find rhythm.
Sams paid a heavy personal price as Larkin unleashed on him at the death, smashing a series of late boundaries off his bowling to blow the BBL's best performed bowler's figures out to an ugly 0-41.
Stoinis has averaged over 86 in matches the Stars have won this season, and almost bettered it as he eclipsed D'Arcy Short for most runs ever in a BBL season (695) - very nearly notching 700 runs for 2019-20, with what was his seventh half century.
The BBL player of the tournament, who is out of favour by Australia selectors, has feasted on the Thunder this year, scoring a 50 against them in all three outings.
The Thunder's fortunes are just as hinged to the performances of Hales and Usman Khawaja at the top of the order.
Hales tried to push a quick single and couldn't reach far enough for his crease, while Khawaja was also out cheaply.
MAXWELL BATTING ORDER DILEMMA
They didn't need him on Thursday, but the Stars' brains trust have some thinking to do about how to best use Glenn Maxwell in a final.
Maxwell faced just six balls in the Stars' total of 2-194, which on one level was a reflection of Melbourne's prowess at the top of the order, but on the other, it begged the question how they can be comfortable leaving T20 cricket's most damaging batsman on the pine for so long.