Melbourne may have been the stars of the tournament so far but James Gray reckons Steve Smith is about to steal the show...
"Adam Zampa has been talking up his chances of getting Smith out but he will have seen plenty of his Australia teammate's leg-spin in India..."
Melbourne Stars vs Sydney Sixers
Friday January 31, 08:15 GMT
TV: Live on BT Sport 1
It's best not to worry about who could play whom in the revamped Big Bash playoff system and instead know that only these two sides can lose one game and still make the final. For everyone else, it's knockout cricket.
Sixers are more than just Smith - but he helps
Knockout cricket has been the name of the game for the Sydney Sixers in recent weeks, with pursuit of that top-two spot and a double-chance at the final boosted by the arrival of Steven Peter Devereux Smith, fresh from a tour of India in which he averaged 114.5. Needless to say he has gone straight into the side and steered the Sixers ship to a masterful win over the Renegades despite a hundred from Aaron Finch - which confirmed them in second place once the Strikers had lost in Adelaide.
It is thanks to Smith that the Sixers are now 11/8 favourites to win their second Big Bash title, a tag that the Stars have held for some time - the Melbourne side have of course never won the competition, falling 13 runs short last year.
The main challenge for the Sixers will be getting through the finals without Tom Curran, who won three Man of the Match awards in the group stages and leaves the set-up for England duty as the second-top wicket-taker overall, despite an economy rate of more than nine. But on the vast MCG outfield, it could be the spinners who come to the fore in his place and Steve O'Keefe's role as a holding bowler - he opened against the Renegades and garnered 11 dots in his four overs - will be complimented nicely by Nathan Lyon's abilities. Both men are 4/1 to be the top Sixers wicket-taker and if Lloyd Pope the leg-spinner does not play, either have interest in that market.
It's hard to bet against a side with Smith in it, even at a thin 10/11, and I'm not going to - although when these two likely meet again in the final it may be even harder to call.
Positive mental attitude easy for the Stars
It would be easy to say that the Melbourne Stars have peaked to early, having won 10 of 11 and then lost their last three, but to do so would be to suggest that their diamond-studded line-up are incapable of producing a bounce-back performance and to overlook the fact that they were home and hosed with a home final locked in after 11 games.
"We had a plan to play a few guys that hadn't had a lot of game time and to rest a few of our quicks to make sure they were 100 per cent before the final," an unperturbed captain Glenn Maxwell said this week, and why should he be worried?
His only concern might be jet lag, not for himself but for breakout star Haris Rauf, who will land in Melbourne on Thursday morning after an international stint, a sign of his rise to fame, in Pakistan. But given that Rauf has out-bowled a line-up that includes Nathan Coulter-Nile, Adam Zampa and some bloke called Dale Steyn, don't rule another lightning performance. He is the 5/2 favourite to lead the Stars in wickets.
And if the Stars need any help remembering how to win, all they need to do is watch a tape of Marcus Stoinis' record knock against this opposition on this ground, when he made 147 barely two weeks ago. The absence of Curran, who went for 58 that day, will likely disappoint the Australian opener, whose fate on this occasion may dictate how close the 10/11 Stars get to an immediate spot in the final.
Smith vs spin
For a long time, Smith was supposed to have an Achilles heel: the spinning ball turning away from him. It's true that facing left-arm spin, followed by leg spin, he has his lowest average in Test cricket, but it's still impressive. Nevertheless, don't be surprised to see Maxwell to Nic Maddison, he of career-best figures just a few weeks ago, for some left-arm twirl.
But he is by no means their primary spinner, with Nepalese teenager Sandeep Lamichhane and Aussie leggie Adam Zampa in their ranks too. The latter has been talking up his chances of getting Smith out, the prized wicket that will define the game. But the batter will have seen plenty of his Australia teammate on the tour of India and Smith looks a prudent choice for Man of the Match at 9/1.