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Neser in doubt: Star quick's epic batting cameo clinches nervy chase for stunning Heat upset

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2nd February, 2023
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He’s one of Australia’s premier fast bowlers, and Michael Neser has shown he’s just as effective with bat in hand, producing a heroic counterattack to secure a stunning Brisbane Heat upset of the more fancied Sydney Sixers in the BBL Challenger final.

On a low, slow SCG pitch that proved a nightmare for batting, player of the match Neser more than doubled the next-highest score for the match, whacking an unbeaten 48 off just 32 balls – including a game-changing four consecutive boundaries off Hayden Kerr in the 16th over – to ace a difficult run chase and secure the Heat just their second BBL finals berth, a decade after their first.

All up, Neser hit seven boundaries, not only as many as the rest of his teammates combined but equal to the entire Sixers’ innings.

The 32-year old, surprisingly overlooked as part of the Test squad for the tour of India, proved a more than able replacement for departed Heat trio Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne and Matt Renshaw; while the absence of Mitchell Swepson for the same reasons was mitigated by the brilliance of spin-bowling pair Matt Kuhnemann (3/17) and Nathan McSweeney (1/21).

That duo helped restrict the Sixers, red-hot favourites heading in despite the departure of Steve Smith, to 9/116 from their 20 overs, before Neser’s late heroics saw the underdogs recover from 5/56 to win with 10 balls to spare.

It was a win to typify the Heat’s never-say-die season: in last place with just two wins from their first nine games, they have now won seven of their last eight, including three knockout finals on the road. They can head into their clash with the Scorchers with belief aplenty, though they will again need to defy the odds.

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The victory sets up a trip to Perth to take on the Scorchers on Saturday night; the same opponent and state the Heat triumphed over in their one and only tournament title back in BBL02.

For the Sixers, defeat ends the storied T20 career of Dan Christian, who holds the unique distinction of BBL titles with three separate franchises: the Sixers in 2020/21, the Melbourne Renegades in 2018/19, and the Heat themselves in 2012/13.

“My mind’s now in Perth, really – I’m just stoked we made the finals,” a modest Neser said after the match.

“From being dead last on the table and now in the grand final, couldn’t think of anything better.”

After a breezy 27-run opening stand between Kurtis Patterson and Josh Phillipe was broken by breakout Heat quick Spencer Johnson, the Sixers’ innings was only downhill from there.

The turning point truly came with the wicket of Philippe, caught behind off Kuhnemann in bizarre circumstances: after a Heat review, the third umpire quickly ruled out LBW after seeing the ball brush the Sixers opener’s glove, only to seemingly forget keeper Jimmy Peirson had taken the catch.

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It took an on-field protest for the review to continue, Philippe at last given his marching orders in the latest BBL third umpire farce.

From there, wickets fell at regular interviews, and just as crucially, the runs dried up. With a spin-friendly SCG pitch keeping troublingly low, Kuhnemann and McSweeney, recalled in place of Labuschagne as a batting all-rounder, proved all but impossible to get away, conceding one boundary between them.

Experienced pair Daniel Hughes and Moises Henriques fell in identical circumstances, playing back and across to good length balls that fizzed in low: Henriques trapped plumb in front for the easiest LBW of the tournament, Hughes unable to even get his pad in the way to see his furniture disturbed.

Christian, too, paid a heavy price for hitting across the line, his heave at Johnson finding naught but air as his stumps were splattered. Unquestionably the find of the tournament, the tearaway quick recovered splendidly after a shaky start with the new ball, finishing with 3/28 from his four overs.

Neser, too, finished well, ensuring any late damage by tailenders Ben Dwarshuis and Sean Abbott was limited. The 27-run opening stand ended up comfortably the best of the inning, Hughes’ patient 24-ball 23 making him the pick of the batters.

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All signs pointed to the wily veteran Steve O’Keefe, playing his 100th match, to prove difficult to so much as keep out, never mind score off.

But from the moment the recalled Sam Heazlett, opening in place of Khawaja for his first match of the season and first BBL game in more than 12 months, gazumped the left-armer over mid-wicket against the spin for four, the intent was clear.

Josh Brown, another find from Premier cricket, added two colossal sixes down the ground in his next over, O’Keefe’s first two overs costing 23.

At 0/25 after three overs, the Heat were flying; however, it would once again prove easiest to bat with the new ball. Having made his way safely to 13, Heazlett torched himself to begin the rot: taking an ambitious overthrow after Silk missed the stumps at the non-striker’s end with Brown a suburb away, his desperate dive couldn’t beat a precise return throw from Dwarshuis.

From 0/31 after 20 balls, the Heat would lose five wickets for just 25 runs across the next eight overs.

Spinner Izharulhaq Naveed proved fiendishly difficult to get away, taking an outstanding return catch to remove Englishman Sam Hain to boot, while O’Keefe’s second spell saw him concede just seven extra runs and add the wicket of Peirson.

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Calling the Power Surge needing 36 runs from the final six overs, with Max Bryant and Neser at the crease, was a bold ploy given the Sixers had managed just eight runs (and lost two wickets) from theirs; the plan seemed to have failed when Bryant, the final true batter left standing, crumbled under the pressure to sky Sean Abbott to long-off.

But the Sixers hadn’t counted on Neser: just when they appeared to have their noses in front, the all-rounder landed four telling blows off Kerr to swing the match in an instant.

First pulling through the gap behind square, then clipping the left-armer past mid-on, then a deft late cut that beat short third man, and lastly a magnificent straight drive worthy of many a top-order batter, Neser’s orgy of boundaries were all distinct, and each as remarkable as the others on a pitch that had previously never been conducive to shot-making.

“The opportunity was there with the ball being still reasonably hard, to get a good over out of the Surge,” Neser said of the bold decision to take the Power Surge.

“We knew it was just one really good over, and the game was ours. I thought, don’t leave it too late while the ball’s getting softer and softer.”

Needing 14 from 24 balls after the flurry, the Heat could afford to bide their time: James Bazley mustered just two runs from his 10 balls at the crease, the second a desperate attempt to give Neser back the strike that would have seen him run out by half the pitch had the throw at the stumps been true.

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But it was all Neser: finishing in style with another thumping heave over mid-on to the rope, a chase that at times had seen impossible was completed with the greatest of ease.

Others have scored more this BBL tournament; there have been more spectacular innings, against tougher bowling too. But there cannot have been a more substantial knock this season than what Neser produced at the SCG, to leave the Heat one game away from the competition’s greatest ever Cinderella story.

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