Australia's Premier T20 competition begins in Adelaide on Thursday and Matt Harris believes that the Melbourne Stars can finally justify their tag as pre-tournament favourites, but sees more value in Brisbane Heat...
"The Stars’ record in the knockout phase of the tournament is a concern – as is the form of Kevin Pietersen who will be crucial to the favourites throughout this competition."
This is the fourth version of Australia's Big Bash and once again, the Melbourne Stars head the betting by some distance. Cameron White's men are trading at 4.1 to lift the trophy at the end of January - more than three points ahead of their nearest market rivals - and the arrival of a certain former England international will have certainly influenced matters.
Kevin Pietersen is here to bolster a squad that already contains some of the best exponents of the game's shortest format: Alongside Captain White, the Stars can field Glenn Maxwell, James Faulkner, Clint McKay and John Hastings while England's Luke Wright joins his former international colleague Pietersen.
However, I would be more comfortable backing the Stars if KP wasn't involved. The controversy over his England place and subsequent autobiography tend to mask the fact that this has been a subdued year with the bat and the player has struggled to make T20 runs for Delhi, Surrey and St Lucia in 2014.
The Chasing Pack
The Stars will get to the last four but from that point, it's anyone's tournament - a point that has been proved by all three versions of the Big Bash to date. Hobart Hurricanes were the runners up 12 months ago and will benefit from fielding the most explosive opening partnership in the competition.
Ben Dunk was the player of the tournament last time out while Alex Hales began the year as the number one ranked batsman in this form of the game. The Notts Outlaw has been a little quiet since stepping up to England's ODI squad but if he can replicate his most recent county form, the Hurricanes - at 7.413/2 in the outright betting - are on course for another knockout slot.
Elsewhere, Brisbane Heat at 7.87/1 could be the side most likely to challenge the Stars at the summit. The franchise has captured Andrew Flintoff whose late season performances for Lancashire suggested that he may yet turn crucial games at this level but fellow overseas player Samuel Badree, with his economical brand of leg spin, may be a more effective signing over the course of a long campaign.
The Heat will lose Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson to international duty but James Hopes, Joe Burns, Dan Christian and Peter Forrest are dependable squad members who can take the Heat all the way.
Perth Scorchers lifted the title last time around but theirs was an unexpected victory. The win proved that T20 cricket can still retain a lottery element but at 7.87/1 for the title, there has been little interest ahead of Big Bash 4.
The 43-year-old Brad Hogg has deferred his pension for another campaign and there is some experience in a side led by Adam Voges and featuring Michael Klinger and England's Michael Carberry. Overall, it's a young and developing unit and the Scorchers may well miss out on the top four.
The franchise set to take their place in the knockouts are Sydney Sixers who won the first version of the Big Bash before going on to claim the Champions League in the same year.
Mitchell Starc, Steve Smith and Brad Haddin will appear when available but there is enough strength in depth with Dwayne Smith, Michael Lumb, Nic Maddinson and Steve O'Keefe among those looking to improve on a disappointing campaign in 2013-14. The Sixers are at 8.88/1 for the tournament.
Sydney Thunder recorded one victory out of eight at Big Bash three and although that rare scalp ended a long winless run, it keeps the squad at the bottom of the betting at 11.010/1. Melbourne Renegades at 8.88/1 and Adelaide Strikers at 9.28/1 will fare better but weaker squads should keep them out of the top four positions.
The Stars' record in the knockout phase of the tournament is a concern - as is the form of Kevin Pietersen who will be crucial to the favourites throughout this competition. I do feel this is their year but Brisbane Heat look to be a huge threat and may offer an opportunity for a safer punt.
Brisbane Heat to reach the final at 3.7511/4
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