With their season on the line, Adelaide Strikers’ hierarchy faced a selection headache ahead of playing defending champions Perth Scorchers at the pace-friendly Optus Stadium.
Strikers had surged into the knockout final since turning around their season after a heavy loss in Perth earlier in the month, where they conceded 211 for 4, left their finals hopes hanging by a thread
Strikers languished in last spot on the BBL ladder after their struggling attack leaked more than 200 runs for the third time in five games.
“We got to a point in the season where every game was a final for us,” Strikers coach Jason Gillespie said. “So we had to do something different. We had to be brave enough to make a change in our philosophy and strategy.”
It proved an inspired gamble with Pope starring with the big wickets of Aaron Hardie and Josh Inglis as a revamped Strikers attack limited Scorchers to 153 for 7 in their eventual nine-wicket thumping at the Adelaide Oval.
“They’re two very different types of legspinners,” Gillespie said. “Boyce is a lot slower through the air. He’s got great control of his length and Popey’s a little bit quicker through the air, but he’s got a real turning and bouncing wrong’un.”
But the traditionally hard and fast surface at Optus Stadium is particularly tough for spinners, who are usually on a hiding to nothing. Teams don’t often select two frontline spinners there. In the ground’s previous match, Sydney Sixers dropped in-form left-armer Steve O’Keefe for seamer Jackson Bird.
“We’ve come here [Perth] over the years trying to fight fire with fire,” Gillespie said. “Let’s take a complete change of tactics and see how we go. We genuinely believed the team we picked from a bowling perspective was a really good match up against the Scorchers
“We knew they had a lot of left-handers, so the offspin and the leggies bowling two different paces… we thought that would create a challenge for Scorchers. They like pace on, they are a strong hitting team. Let’s take the air out of the ball and make them make the pace.”
But Fanning’s fairytale was soon cut short by seamer Henry Thornton before Pope came into the attack in the sixth over. He dismissed Marcus Harris, a late season signing, on his fourth delivery and then combined with Boyce to bamboozle Scorchers in the type of mesmerising spin bowling rarely seen in Perth.
It inevitably came down to their battles with Scorchers’ best batters Hardie and Inglis, who usually treat spinners with complete disdain at Optus Stadium. Hardie’s eyes light up when the ball is tossed up, but he missed a flighted delivery from Pope that dipped and crashed into his stumps.
The pressure fell on Inglis, who has a knack for giving himself room against spin and carving over the covers. He again tried his favoured stroke against Boyce only for the ball to skid off the surface and knock over leg stump.
Boyce celebrated manically as Scorchers were eventually routed for 105. Eight of their 10 wickets fell to spin with Pope and Boyce combining for seven of them.
We’ve got nothing to lose. We’ll go to the Gold Coast full of beans and full of energy… but, again, [stay] nice and calm
Strikers head coach Jason Gillespie
“The feedback from our batters was that it was like a tennis ball bounce on a spongy surface. We thought that would actually work for us with our spinners,” Gillespie said. “We just felt we were in the game and then were a wicket away from cracking it open.”
It was only Short’s second failure in what has been a record-breaking season for a player closing in on a spot in Australia’s T20 World Cup squad.
But Weatherald continued his rich vein of form to hit the only half-century of the match and ignite Strikers. “Jake’s had a quiet couple of years. We just had to back his experience,” Gillespie said of Weatherald, who is averaging 183 with a strike-rate of 192.63 in his last three matches.
“He’s just coming out with a free mind and I’ve just encouraged him to hit the ball like he’s having a net because he’s one of the best batters in the net you’ll ever see.”
Having ended Scorchers’ stranglehold of the BBL, Strikers pulled off one of their best ever wins in a triumph that was particularly sweet. Gillespie had his team had woken up on game day to the back page of the West Australian, the unsurprisingly parochial local newspaper, that sported the headline ‘Scorchers v One Man’.
“Incredibly pleased, especially when we read the back page of the paper today and saw that we are a one-man team,” Gillespie said. “That gave the boys a hell of a lot of motivation.”
It provided assistant coach Ryan Harris the perfect ammunition for his now customary pre-game rev-up to the players and the rest was history.
But Strikers will have to back up quickly as they make the long trip to the Gold Coast to meet Brisbane Heat in the Challenger on Monday. The winner will face Sixers in the final at the SCG on Wednesday.
Heat and Strikers have effectively not played this season after their early season match in Adelaide was abandoned without a ball being bowled.
A two-paced Gold Coast surface is likely to suit Boyce and Pope as Strikers suddenly find themself inching towards a first BBL title in six years.
“A couple of buzzwords for us this year have been: calm and clear… execute. We’ve kept things really simple as much as we can,” Gillespie said. “We’ve got nothing to lose. We’ll go to the Gold Coast full of beans and full of energy… but, again, [stay] nice and calm.
“Just go out there and have some fun and see where it takes us.”
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo