Mike Hussey’s ultimate Big Bash League preview
It's audition time. Which Big Bash League superstars can smash the down the door to Australia's Twenty20 squad in a World Cup year?
At the front of the queue are Chris Lynn, D'Arcy Short and Marcus Stoinis - all out of favour because they open the batting for their franchises when Aaron Finch and David Warner have those positions locked for Australia.
How many bags of wickets would it take Hobart strike weapon Riley Meredith to muscle into the fast bowling battery? Can Billy Stanlake prove he has the control to combat the world's best? What does Josh Hazlewood have to do to prove he has enough white-ball tricks?
Or could an unknown come from the clouds? This time last year and Kane Richardson had abandoned his ODI World Cup dream.
Then, the death bowler's 24 scalps (ranked No. 1) delivered Melbourne Renegades the championship, and Richardson a ticket to England.
Western Australia dropped captain Ashton Turner from its Sheffield Shield team after averaging 3.5 against the red ball this season.
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But Turner's matchwinning IQ at the death makes him one of the BBL's smartest batsmen, and - while Turner's six BBL ducks is the equal-most - he is just as sharp between the wickets.
Australia wants Turner in the middle order for the T20 World Cup as the man to ice the cake. Can he lock down that position?
This year the spotlight will shine brighter than ever. Last BBL season was cannibalised by Australia hosting India in a blockbuster summer, while in 2017 it competed with the Ashes.
But the SCG Test, slated to finish on January 7, will place a full stop on a truncated Aussie summer as all eyes focus on a jam-packed Big Bash.
Cricket Australia has sliced 12 days off the regular season - there are 14 double-headers - while the finals system is two games longer and immeasurably fairer.
This season you can win it from fifth … although that would require four consecutive knockout wins on the road against the teams above you.
But who could discount Sydney Sixers?
Steve Smith will jet home from India - Australia travels for three ODIs in mid-January - for the final two Sixers games, plus finals.
If Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon aren't selected for that ODI series then they'll play the last six Sixers games.
Similarly, if Brisbane Heat can stay in touch with the top five then it could catch fire.
South African wizard AB de Villiers will make his Brisbane debut on January 14 and, while man-of-the-summer Marnus Labuschagne deserves to crack that ODI squad, Joe Burns should head to the Gabba with AB.
Imagine Smith and AB going hammer and tong on a batsmen's paradise at the Gabba in late January?
The internationals - both foreign passports and Australian - are more box office than ever. Finally, the star factor is here.
Banton has been hailed a mini-Kevin Pietersen and will be coached by Darren Lehmann, who returns to Brisbane seven years after delivering its maiden title.
What about Scorcher Cameron Green? He recently transformed from a No. 9 fast bowler to a No. 5 specialist batter, when a back injury ruled him out of the WA's Shield attack.
It was such a dramatic improvement that Ricky Ponting called for Green to join the Test squad, the ultimate compliment for the Ben Cutting-like muscle man.
The reigning champion has stolen veteran opener Shaun Marsh, whose BBL average of 49.5 is only shaded by Usman Khawaja's 49.6.
"Adding the class of Shaun Marsh is a huge bonus for us," Renegades captain Aaron Finch said.
"We've been trying to get him away from the west for about 10 years - since BBL02 - and we've finally got him."
Finch also lauded "the ignorance of youth" as a key weapon, and the red team has the richest dose of kid power.
Will Sutherland is the name to watch this summer while Mackenzie Harvey, who played in last summer's championship, and Jake Fraser-McGurk, 17, will leave in January for the Under-19 World Cup.
Who else? Hobart raves about batsman Caleb Jewell, 22, and quick Nathan Ellis, 25, while Sixers skipper Moises Henriques thinks late bloomer Daniel Hughes, 30, will make a mountain of runs.
The squads are, yet again, as even as freshly-laid concrete.
The Scorchers have won three titles but crashed to last summer's wooden spoon. Five teams have won it once with the Stars and Hurricanes still trophyless.
Bring on the Bash. And, if you're good enough, maybe the home 2020 T20 World Cup, too.
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MIKE HUSSEY AND SAM LANDSBERGER'S TEAM-BY-TEAM PREVIEWS