Stars look to innovative Maxwell in bid for elusive BBL title
The Melbourne Stars will again bank on a "smiling and happy" Glenn Maxwell to lead the way and are confident recruit Will Pucovski can have an impact, as they prepare to launch their latest bid for an elusive Big Bash League title.
Now ready to spend their opening nine matches on the road in a hub, the Stars open their campaign against the Brisbane Heat at Canberra's Manuka Oval on Friday night.
Maxwell may have had an under-par Indian Premier League campaign but the all-rounder rebounded superbly for Australia in the white-ball series against India. The Stars' skipper lashed 167 runs at 83.5 at a stunning strike rate of 194.18 in the one-day series, including an electrifying 100m switch hit for six, and 78 runs at 26 at a strike rate of 150 in the Twenty20 series.
Maxwell has battled mental health issues over the past year but said recently that he now knew what was required to keep himself in the best state of mind.
Stars coach David Hussey, who has known Maxwell for many years as a teammate and coach, said the master blaster was ready for another potent BBL.
"Can he go to another level? He is striking at just over 200. What I am more happy about is that he is going out there, smiling, he is enjoying his cricket and he is doing it all," Hussey said.
"It's up to me to keep him as fresh as we possibly can. If he is smiling and happy, you generally get your best results from Glenn Maxwell."
Maxwell was in excellent touch through most of the tournament last season, crunching 398 runs at 39.8 at a strike rate of 148.5, while claiming 10 wickets at 26, as his side fell short in the grand final for the second straight season.
He was also imaginative in the field, and set what was thought to be a BBL first when he allowed 19 of the 20 overs in a match against the Perth Scorchers on a placid MCG deck to be spin.
"Again, that is Glenn Maxwell's innovation as a captain and he read the pitch better than most. He thought this was the best way of us winning the game," Hussey sad.
"He bowled [Nic] Maddinson in the last over to win the game - it was a phenomenal game of cricket to watch."
The Stars were shocked when English key recruit Jonny Bairstow informed them that he would miss the tournament, having been told he would be chosen for the slated Test tour of Sri Lanka, but this means Marcus Stoinis, last year's competition top run scorer (705 runs at 54.23), and former Australian batsman Hilton Cartwright will have major responsibility at the top of the order.
The new rule allowing for the power play, with only two fielders permitted outside the circle, to be split between the opening four overs and a floating two-over segment means teams are likely to have an increased emphasis on a turbo-charged start.
This will be Pucovski's maiden season in the BBL but his availability remains clouded. He had been due to make his Test debut against India next week but that is now in doubt after his latest concussion, this time having misjudged a bouncer in an Australia A match on Tuesday.
Pucovski had opted against taking the plunge into the sport's bite-sized format until this season, despite strong interest from the Stars and Renegades.
While he has made a name for himself as a man who wants to bat for long periods, Hussey said Pucovski had the skills and temperament to adjust. However, he conceded it was "debatable" whether Pucovski was ready to be in the Stars' best XI.
"The reason why we signed him is because I believe there is a spot in any T20 team for a good, correct player at the top of the order who can play good, correct cricket shots ... against all types of bowling," Hussey said.
"If Will can hit the ball along the ground and get boundaries and hit 50 off 35 ball, I think he will be a valuable addition to any cricket team."
Hussey said Pucovski could be used at the top of the order but could also be suited for later in the innings when the floating power-play is adopted.
The Stars believe Afghan leg-spinner Zahir Khan could be an "x-factor", while West Indian hitter Andre Fletcher will provide entertainment.
Stars squad: Glenn Maxwell (c), Hilton Cartwright, Jackson Coleman, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Ben Dunk, Seb Gotch, Liam Hatcher, Clint Hinchliffe, Zahir Khan, Nick Larkin, Nic Maddinson, Jonathan Merlo, Lance Morris, Tom O’Connell, Nicholas Pooran, Will Pucovski, Billy Stanlake, Marcus Stoinis, Adam Zampa, Dilbar Hussain, Andre Fletcher.
Jon Pierik is cricket writer for The Age. He also covers AFL and has won awards for his cricket and basketball writing.