The Bulls Masters Country Challenge for 2023 provided plenty of surprises and shock results. For the first time since 2019 the final at the Gabba will not include the North Queensland Monsoons after they exited the group stage winless. However the Monsoons disappointing campaign was more a reflection of how the other zones have stepped up and risen to the standard set by a side containing some of Country Queensland’s most recognised and seasoned performers.
Far North Fusion began their title defence with a scratchy and unconvincing win in the opening game on Friday night, chasing down Wide Bay Flames meagre total of 90 in 17 overs.
They were then comprehensively beaten by the Mackay/Whitsundays Nitros in round two after having them on the canvas at 5 for 34, only for Matthew Wicks to blast 87 runs from 44 balls to dig the Nitros to a very defendable 162. The Fusion big guns couldn’t get close with three run-outs spoiling their momentum and they spluttered to 8/132 to put their title defence in jeopardy.
The Sunshine Coast Scorchers entry in to the competition for the first time was a successful one with some clutch bowling at the death allowing them to get out of trouble against the Central Queensland Seamers. Defending 151, the Seamers looked to be on track for the win at 2/133 when Joe McGahan was run-out for 29 and the run chase spluttered to finish 8 runs short.
The South East Queensland Stormers have struggled in the tournament in recent years, finishing in the bottom half of their pool in each of their past six years. They announced themselves as a legitimate challenger with a comprehensive flogging of perennial contenders, the Monsoons. Former Brisbane Lions AFL player, Claye Beams scored 86 runs to push the Stormers to a big first innings total of 149 and they knocked North Queensland over for 83.
The three afternoon games on Saturday were decided by a combined margin of 10 runs showing just how tight the competition was in 2023. Wide Bay beat the Darling Downs by hitting a four from the final ball to win by one run. the Scorchers defended their modest total of 99 by knocking over the North Queensland Monsoons for 90. Central Queensland and the South East Queensland Stormers couldn’t be split, sharing the points after both finishing on 168 runs.
Mackay/Whitsundays Nitros continued their impressive start to the tournament by ending the Wide Bay Flames semi-final hopes with a 50 run win under lights at Walker road and the Far North Fusion chased down the Darling Downs Suns 8/129 in what was a must win game for both teams in the hunt for a semi-final.
Pool A had locked in their semi-finalists heading in to Sunday, with Mackay/Whitsundays Nitros finishing top and defending champs Far North Fusion finishing second. Sunshine Coast was assured a spot in the final from pool B, but the early games on Sunday would decide who would join them in the semis. South East Queensland was in the box seat needing a win over the Sunshine Coast to jump them into first in the pool. Central Queensland need a big win over the Monsoons to give them any hope of sneaking into the semis by boosting their net-run-rate (NRR).
The Seamers did just that. They restricted the Monsoons to 6/105 in their 20 overs despite Sam Lowry’s 62 not out. Then the Seamers got to work chasing down the required runs in just 11 overs. The Seamers then had to watch the conclusion of South East Queensland’s game against the Scorchers to see if they would sneak into the semis. The SEQ Stormers looked to be on track to chase down the Scorchers 7/136 when Joshua Nelson and Scott Sanderson had them coasting at 3/97 but the pressure built and the Stormers crumbled to be all out for 126. The Seamers and the Stormers has the same points but it was Central Queensland who had the better NRR.
Semi-final one would be the undefeated Mackay/Whitsundays Nitros against the Central Queensland Seamers and semi-final two was between the Sunshine Coast Scorchers and the Far North Fusion.
The Scorchers batted first but Far North opening bowler Blake Raper produced two ripping deliveries early to have them in trouble at 2/7 and then Brenton Edwards chipped in by claiming Scorchers captain Jarrod Officer to have the Coasties reeling at 3/12. They never truly recovered although their final total of 91 could have been a lot worse.
The Fusion top order hadn’t fully fired in the tournament yet but Queensland Country representatives Jake Roach and Matty Wilkins would not be denied and they guided the Fusion home in 19 overs with Wilkins the key-contributor with 44.
The Nitros had been the best side in the pool stages but unfortunately they didn’t fire in the semi-final with Central Queensland knocking them over for 117. Shaun Austin gave the Nitros a chance with his 42 from 35 balls giving his side a total to defend. Seamers captain, Joe McGahan led from the front with 3/17.
McGahan started well with the bat for the Seamers in the chase putting his side in the box-seat as they rushed out to 0/43 before he was bowled by Matthew Wicks. Fellow opener, David Heymer kept a cool head when wickets tumbled around him, guiding the Seamers into their first Gabba final since winning in 2019.
The final will be held at the Gabba on the 27th of December as a curtain-raiser to the Brisbane Heat BBL game against the Sydney Thunder.