Derbies kick off Big Bash League

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Sydney Sixers Brad Haddin hits a six during their Big Bash League match. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

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Whether Twenty20 cricket’s your game or not, the second edition of the Big Bash League kicks off tonight and tomorrow night with exactly the matches that Cricket Australia re-built this series around: Melbourne and Sydney local derbies.

The Melbourne Renegades will host cross-town rivals Melbourne Stars tonight at Etihad Stadium, while tomorrow night sees Champions League … um, champions and reigning Big Bash League winners the Sydney Sixers taking on Sydney Thunder at the SCG.

Sunday shapes as a big night for cricket fans, with the Brisbane Heat playing the Hobart Hurricanes at the Gabba followed by last year’s runner-up, the Perth Scorchers, hosting the Adelaide Strikers at the WACA.

The second Big Bash League, or BBL|02 as it’s been abbreviated, will of course be looking to kick on from its impressive rebirth last summer. Record ratings and sell-out crowds around the country validated the major risks Cricket Australia’s marketing department took in taking the shortest form of the game away from the states and putting it in the cities.

The looming broadcast rights battle for BBL|03 and beyond, with free-to-air TV suddenly interested in domestic cricket for the first time again in years is further proof of the rapid success of the rebadged competition.

Last year’s final, played in Perth and won comfortably by the Sixers, sold out in fourteen minutes or something similiarly ridiculous.

I thought that sort of reaction was reserved for Robbie Williams concerts, One Direction or whoever the kids are listening to these days.

I said at the top that BBL|02 will go on regardless of your acceptance, and the time for debate about this being a gimmick or not is long gone. Twenty20 cricket, like it or not, is here to stay.

At this point, I’ll again offer up my standard advice to those that still find Twenty20 cricket hard to take: ignore the scoreboard.

Seriously, take the score out of the equation, and you’re left with cricket in its most pure form: the eternal contest of bat v ball.

Throw captaincy and fielding into this contest, too, and by focussing on these four elements every ball, the strategy, skills, and athleticism of the individuals stand out. Honestly, it’s a really enjoyable way to watch a format that doesn’t appeal to all.

Where the inaugural Big Bash League had a moderate spattering of International stars and the odd sighting of top Australian players, BBL|02 was all set to that start power to new levels.

Well it was, up until Wednesday. Within a few hours on Wednesday afternoon, the big names started dropping like flies.

Cricket Australia decided Australian Captain Michael Clarke needed a weekend off rather than play for the Thunder, and likewise pace man Ben Hilfenhaus for the Hurricanes. Perth Test debutant John Hastings was ruled out of the Stars first game, and could yet be in doubt for the First Test against Sri Lanka in Hobart next week.

Fringe Test quick Josh Hazelwood reported some left foot soreness in the same region where he had a stress fracture last season, and was put on ice for somewhere between four and six weeks, leaving the Sixers down a frontline bowler.

South Africa decided Dale Steyn was needed at home, and withdrew him from his one and only game for Brisbane, making it a double marquee blow for the Heat with New Zealand Captain Dan Vettori already ruled out of the tournament with an Achilles injury.

This was on top of the Scorchers already losing young punk Pat Cummins for some and maybe all of the series, the Strikers losing Andrew McDonald, and Shahid Afridi pulling out of his contract with the Thunder.

About the only good news on the availability front recently is that the Hurricanes will now have Ricky Ponting for the whole tournament now that he’s retired from Test duty.

Some predictions? Ha, not likely. With Twenty20 cricket being a lottery at the best of times, predicting likely finishing spots is almost impossible.

On paper, the Stars and maybe the Sixers look like the teams to beat, but of course, cricket is rarely played on paper.

I think the Renegades and Thunder might struggle, and the other four teams are just as likely to surprise as disappoint. Though, that said, I do like the Hurricanes and think they’re a good chance of going better than their semi-final berth last summer.

So who are the key men?

If you want power hitters, they don’t come any bigger than the Thunder’s Chris Gayle. You could be seated 25 rows back at ANZ Stadium in Sydney and still be in danger of wearing one. Bombs bowlers back over their heads for fun.

The Renegades’ Aaron Finch, the Stars’ David Hussey and Luke Wright, Mitch Marsh and Herschelle Gibbs over in the west, Brendan McCullum and Dan Christian for the Heat. Travis Birt could kill someone in Hobart, and the Sixers’ Brad Haddin remains one of the cleanest strikers of the ball getting around.

If it’s the quicks that float your boat, then the internationals are for you.

Alfonso Thomas will be very handy for Perth, Lasith Malinga will skid things through for the Stars, while Rana Naved and his mullet have both been crowd favourites in Hobart for several years now. West Indian quicks Fidel Edwards (Thunder) and Kemar Roach (Heat) will bring the calypso fire and brimstone to the competition, as will Dwayne Bravo for the Sixers.

Of the slow men, it’s hard to go much further than Melbourne, where the two greatest spin bowlers world cricket has ever known, Muttiah Muralithuran and Shane Warne will line on the red and green sides of town respectively.

Spin bowling has become a major weapon in Twenty20 these days, and all squads are chock-full of them: Ajmal, Lyon, Botha, Boyce, Hauritz, Doherty, Krezja, Murali, Maxwell, Warne, Hussey, Beer, Hogg, Narine, O’Keeffe, Zampa.

They’re everywhere, and they’ll play a major role in BBL|02.

If last season was anything to go by, then BBL|02 is going to be anything but disappointing. Sparks will fly, stumps will be smashed and fences will be cleared. And whether you’re part of it or not, the crowds will be big and will love every minute of it.

Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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