Big Bash bolters
Alex Hales smashes one for the Renegades. Photo: Brendon Thorne
Whether you praise the Big Bash as a revitalising novelty, or loathe it as a mutant abomination, Australia's major Twenty20 tournament may deliver its cricket-lovers an unexpected benefit – helping the development of a pavilion-full of fringe players.
Across the BBL, the forgotten, unknown and neglected are taking the opportunity to ply their wares against internationals. Even in the abbreviated form of the game, such competitive moments harden youngsters and offer redemptive opportunities for previously ignored journeymen.
High-profile veterans Shane Warne, 43, and Brad Hogg, 40, continued to make an impact, but other greybeards have graced the BBL. Spinner Brad Young, 39, had been retired so long that he had never played a T20 match. Dimitri Mascarenhas, 35, was plucked from playing club cricket for Prahran to replace the league's best bowler Lasith Malinga in the Melbourne Stars line-up. And the Perth Scorchers became the 11th franchise to use the talents of South African veteran Alfonso Thomas, 35.
Just missed the squad: Savaged with the ball, Sixers all-rounder Stephen O'Keefe responded by belting 41 off 29 balls against the Renegades. Photo: Getty images
But its the younger guns who benefit most from exposure offered by the Big Bash. A succession of players who are striving to consolidate state or national roles have shown off their talents this season.
Here's a few of the up and coming lesser-lights who have shone brightest so far in the Big Bash:
* Englishman Alex Hales, called in by the rampant Melbourne Renegades as a replacement for the injured Marlon Samuels, hopped off a long-haul flight, was bamboozled for the first two overs he faced, then pummelled the Sydney Sixers to the tune of 89 runs off 52 balls, with a tournament-high eight sixes.
Big Bash bolters
English rising star Alex Hales whacked 89 off 52 balls in his first innings for the Renegades. Photo: Getty Images
Tall and athletic, he strikes the short ball with fearsome power, and proved he had mastered the slog sweep with four sixes in an over from left-arm tweaker Steve O'Keefe. An improving first-class player for Nottinghamshire, Hales is quickly becoming a fixture in the English short-form middle-order. Greater things could await in longer forms if his defence matches his shot-making.
* Renegades all-rounder Will Sheridan, 25, has played nine first-class games since his debut in 2009. He is tall and athletic, bowls briskly with his left arm (nine wickets so far in the BBL, including 3/28 against the Sixers) and gives the ball a hiding with the bat.
He has bamboozled sloggers with an impressive array of slower balls, and helped whack the Renegades to an unlikely victory against Adelaide when the run-rate appeared insurmountable. Averaging 43 with the bat and 20 with the ball in T20s, Sheridan has the raw ability to push higher, particularly in short-form cricket.
Adam Zampa is considered one of the two best leg-spinners in Australia, alongside Cameron Boyce. Photo: Getty Images
* South Australian (and Dutch) middle-order right-hander Tom Cooper and keeper-batsman Peter Nevill have been consistently handy for the league-leaders, but NSW middle-order stalwart Ben Rohrer and South Australian tweaker Aaron O'Brien have been the standouts for the Renegades.
O'Brien doesn't spin the ball wildly or make it dip dramatically, but the left-armer's clever variations have baffled opponents, even without boundary protection when bowling in the opening overs.
Rohrer's clean ball-striking and composed decision-making have kept the Renegades' run-rate ticking over, often in partnership with dominant Aaron Finch, leaving the 31-year-old left-hander anchored in the top three performing batsmen in the competition with 253 runs at 50 per knock.
* Burly Queenslander Luke Feldman is yet another capable paceman who would not be out of place at the highest level. He has been perhaps the most consistent quick of the BBL, with 10 wickets in eight games for the Sydney Sixers, at less than seven runs per over. He hits the pitch hard, but possesses a dramatic slower ball, which stymies even the fiercest hitters.
* Hobart Hurricanes boast the BBL's most effective Australian-born bowler, Ben Laughlin. The son of former Victorian all-rounder Trevor has an ever-changing array of slower balls which have tied opposing sloggers in knots, yielding 13 wickets at 13. Further international opportunities surely beckon.
* Tasmanian Melbourne Renegades all-rounder James Faulkner, already something of a veteran, but still only 22, has taken 10 wickets and often scored handy late-order runs. The canny left-arm quick has a full range of short-form tricks, and needs only to add a yard of pace, or an irresistible inswinger, to ensure a lengthy international career.
Notably, he has proved himself when games are on-the-line, bowling with calm assurance against desperate hitters, and choosing the right ball to whack himself when chasing down a total.
* Sachithra Senanayake bowled one of the more intriguing spells of the BBL for the Sydney Sixers against Brisbane Heat.
The whippet-thin Sri Lankan finger-spinner opened the bowling with his innocuous-looking high-armed tweakers and an odd-seam-up "back-spinner", which swerved like a swinging delivery. The Heat batsmen, including veteran James Hopes, had no idea which way the ball was going to deviate.
Senanayake bowled a tournament-high 17 balls which were not scored from, and followed up with 1-19, including 15 dot-balls, against the rampant Renegades, including Alex Hales, who savaged other Sixers bowlers.
* Another spinner creating interest is diminutive 20-year-old Sydney leg-spinner Adam Zampa. Having bowled only once at first-class level (when he took five wickets on debut), Zampa has been one of the few encouraging performers for the Sydney Thunder, with five wickets from six matches, including 3/26 in Hobart. Possessing a similar style to Shane Warne, he doesn't get huge turn, but proves difficult to counter when he hits a length, troubling such spin-savvy strikers as David Hussey.
* Former Victorian wicketkeeper Tim Ludeman has prospered since switching to South Australia, his 71 not-out for the Strikers against Sydney placing him in the top 10 competition scorers. His acrobatic effort to catch Heat's Thisara Perera off Kieron Pollard exemplifies his agility. Any further improvement in his batting consistency will bring him into contention for greater honours, but at 25, he has time on his side.
* One of the few wicketkeeper-batsmen ahead of Ludeman at the moment is luckless Tasmanian star Tim Paine, whose performances in the BBL show he is finally on the way back after two years of injury woes.
Paine has scored 237 runs atop the Hurricanes' batting order, consistently compiling solid scores including a match-defining 74 not-out against Perth Scorchers. With his glovework as reliable as ever, Paine's improving batting will surely see him back in contention for international duties.
* Considered "too orthodox" for T20 cricket is Test candidate Alex Doolan. His 30 off 28 balls, which helped set up the Renegades' win over the Melbourne Stars, was an illuminating cameo.
Mentioned in dispatches as a long-form power after an impressive 161 not-out for the Chairman's XI against South Africa in November, Doolan had been a victim of the Sheffield Shield hiatus as the BBL was granted centre-stage.
But this knock showcased his poise and power. Suffering an injured ankle, he played the shot of the match off the back foot through the covers, a superbly-timed drive that sped past cover-point. Then he smashed a succession of short-balls to the mid-wicket fence. Sometimes a glimpse of class is all the public and selectors need to remind them a potential star is within their grasp.
* Another young bowler taking advantage of the Big Bash to raise his profile is 21-year-old South Australian quick Kane Richardson. The right-arm paceman took 3/9 for the Strikers against Thunder in Sydney, and has snared eight wickets in seven innings overall. His brilliant diving catch on the boundary line against Hobart showcased his athleticism, and his yorker and change of pace have won rave reviews from former Australian stars Jason Gillespie and Mark Waugh.
A Big Bashers 2013 XI
It is a team light-on for batsmen, reflecting the predominance of bowlers of late in T20 games. Most innings totals have battled to reach 160, previously considered "par" for BBL games. But add an attention-hog such as a T20 superstar and BBL-leading run-scorer – say, Aaron Finch, Brad Hodge or Shaun Marsh – and it would take a power of beating.