Sydney Thunder opener Usman Khawaja - a foundation player of the Big Bash League's one-time basket case - stole centre stage in their first semi-final with a glorious unbeaten 104 in his team's eight-wicket victory to steer them to a breakthrough final berth.
Thunder beat Strikers by 8 wickets
An unbeaten century by Usman Khawaja takes Sydney Thunder into their first Big Bash League Grand Final.
The Thunder received one simple message before their first taste when they played the Adelaide Strikers at Adelaide Oval: to treat it like a normal game.
And Khawaja treated his club's biggest moment as if it was a schoolboys park match in his knock which included 13 boundaries and three sixes to easily run down the 160 needed for victory.
He needed only 24 deliveries to score the fastest 50 in his team's history, and then brought his century up from 55 deliveries with a six. Testimony to Khawaja's surge during the power-play was he'd scored 48 runs to opening partner Shane Watson's three.
While Chris Gayle was lauded for his slog-fest 56 off 17 balls for the Melbourne Renegades against the Strikers, Khawaja's effort was priceless for pure class and style.The assault was so severe the crowd wildly cheered a Michael Neser dot ball after his previous four were smashed for 18 runs.
"I don't think you have time to get your eye in," said Khawaja of his explosive start. "You see the ball and if you're feeling like it is there you go for it. It is very different to red ball cricket where there's a bit more happening.
"That is where T20 cricket is right now, and that's how I play my one-day cricket, too. I go pretty hard in my first 10 overs so it isn't too different for me."
While Watson fell for seven, skipper Michael Hussey was given out, caught behind, when he didn't appear to have hit the ball while on 11, Khawaja controlled the match like a puppeteer. His 104 added to his unconquered 109 against the Melbourne Stars and 62 against the Renegades after receiving great support from Henry Nicholls with 35.
It was a great finals debut for the Thunder, whose best effort in the BBL before this summer was to finish second-last in BBL04. Despite the pressure of a hostile 48,699-strong crowd at Adelaide Oval and stifling humidity the Thunder stunned the league's stand-out team with some early breakthroughs.
Shane Watson combined with wicket-keeper Chris Hartley to dismiss Mahela Jayawardene for 7; Andre Russell took what Khawaja dubbed a "TV catch" to dismiss Tim Ludeman for 2 off Clint McKay's bowling; the Adelaide wrecking ball Travis Head was dismissed by McKay for 23 and when skipper Brad Hodge was bowled by Chris Green for 14 the Strikers were 4-64 and desperate for someone to make a stand.
Alex Ross answered the call, scoring a valiant 47 from 38 balls before being dismissed by McKay in the final over. Apart from some lusty hitting by Neser and then Adil Rashid - who smashed 14 from the last three balls of his team's innings - it was a one-man show.
While Khawaja received plenty of praise for his innings he deflected the attention to the electric green bowling attack, saying the likes of Clint McKay, who took three wickets, were the heroes of a special night.
"I think the bowlers did really well to keep them to 160 because that wicket was a belter," he enthused. "Credit must go to them to make the chase a little bit easier for us."
The Thunder, who have shrugged off of the old jibes of "The Chunder", the "whipping boys" and "perennial battlers" were obviously elated to have broken through for a crack at the title but their skipper Hussey proved his players were keeping their emotions in check when he simply described the result as "pretty good".
"It's about enjoying this win but refocussing pretty quickly," he said. "I think coming into a big game, having guys like Usman Khawaja around means we'll be relaxed, we'll be enjoying it but when we turn up on the day it will be about every person in the team doing their job and doing it well."