A blend of experience and youth is proving the perfect mix for the Sydney Thunder, captain Rachael Haynes believes, as her team exceeds preseason predictions.
More than a third of the way through the tournament’s regular season, the Thunder sit on top of the table with four wins from five completed matches.
That record could be even better, had the first of their two matches against the Hobart Hurricanes in Burnie at the weekend not been washed out before a ball had been bowled.
No team experienced more change to their personnel during the off-season than the Thunder, who lost star internationals Harmanpreet Kaur and Stafanie Taylor – the former unavailable due to India’s tour of the West Indies, the latter moving to the Adelaide Strikers.
They also bid farewell to Australian allrounder Nicola Carey, who moved to the Hurricanes alongside young local talent Belinda Vakarewa and Maisy Gibson.
The Thunder also brought in a new coach, with Englishman Trevor Griffin replacing Joanne Broadbent.
The raft of changes had experts tipping a tough season for the new-look Thunder team, who made the semi-finals last season.
But since their 49-run loss to the Sydney Sixers in the opening match of the season, the Thunder have not tasted defeat.
"I think you want to win as many games as you can, particularly early on, otherwise you’re chasing your tail," Thunder captain Rachael Haynes said on Sunday.
"We’ve seen over the last few years that at the back end of the season people start to get tired and some of those close wins before really valuable."
Tellingly, these results have come without a major contribution from Australian vice-captain Haynes, who has scores of 11, 5, 36, 7 and 4 from five innings to date.
At the top of the order, New Zealand import Priest has formed a new opening partnership with powerful local batter Naomi Stalenberg, while Haynes has moved down to No.3.
After several promising starts, Priest hit her straps on Sunday with a 34-ball 50.
"She’s been hitting the ball really well all season, so it was just a matter of time before she took the game away," Haynes said of Priest.
"She really led the way, it was fanatic for our group and gave the batters a lot of confidence coming in after her."
Blackwell, who handed the captaincy to Haynes but continued playing this year, is enjoying a stellar season with the bat to date, averaging 63.33.
New imports Shabnim Ismail and Nida Dar are proving their worth, with South African Ismail claiming six wickets to date and bowling with an economy rate of 6.55, while Pakistan off-spinner Dar has seven scalps including a season-best 2-16 in Burnie on Sunday.
The departures of Carey, Vakarewa and Gibson also meant the Thunder handed early-season opportunities to teenagers Phoebe Litchfield, a prodigiously talented left-handed batter from Orange, and 18-year-old pace bowler Hannah Darlington.
So far, the pair have performed with confidence far beyond their years, with Litchfield striking a half-century against the Heat and forming two match-winning partnerships with Blackwell, who is 20 years her senior.
Darlington proved she can keep her cool when she took 2-19 against the Renegades.
"(Blackwell and Litchfield) have had some really good partnerships throughout the season, it’s really nice to watch," Haynes said.
"Alex is really helping Phoebe out in the middle and Phoebe is just taking on the game.
"We’ve got that blend throughout our squad, that blend of youth and experience."
The Thunder hit the road for their next two matches – both against the Scorchers, first at Karen Rolton Oval in Adelaide on Sunday before a second match at the WACA next Tuesday night – before hosting a Festival Weekend at Drummoyne Oval from November 15-17.