BBL faces delicate balancing act
Timing is everything. Four hours after Australia's humiliating defeat at Lord's in July, Cricket Australia dropped a press release about the Big Bash League and was duly whacked for it. Now, four days after the Ashes was decided in Perth, the BBL is free to begin its third edition in front of its biggest audience yet. The timing could not be better.
What this means is that the recurring 'Test versus T20 players' debate becomes a moot point, for the moment at least, due to the Ashes being in safe-keeping and with the BBL's future secure on the back of CA's $100 million broadcast deal with free-to-air network Channel 10.
CA deserves a great deal of credit for what it has achieved with the development of the competition from a commercial standpoint. Commercial executive general manager Mike McKenna and his team held their nerve in the face of financial losses in the first two years to deliver handsome dividends in the third.
But the BBL has been built, in many respects, on glitz and glamour, the star-power of Shane Warne, and a celebrity culture rather than quality cricket. That novelty has worn off, so to speak, with Warne hanging up his lime greens last season. Ricky Ponting, too, has left the playing arena for the Channel 10 commentary team.
The upcoming tournament will however still feature a few Australian veterans. Michael Hussey has been sighted in nets across the country. He took his gear to Hobart to hit balls at the end of each day's play during Australia A's tour game against England in November while working as a television commentator. In between times, in Perth, he was regularly seen at an indoor centre in front of a bowling machine manned by his batting coach Ian Kevan. He also played two T20's for his club side Wanneroo and approached those games with the same professionalism he exuded on each of the 302 occasions he represented his country.
Simon Katich, likewise has played in the Ryobi Cup in October for Western Australia and, for the second straight year, made a century in a lead-up grade fixture for his old WACA club Midland-Guildford, ahead of captaining the Perth Scorchers.
For players with national ambitions, these are the examples to follow.
Much has been made of the exhausting length of the six-week tournament and the segregation of the Sheffield Shield season to accommodate it - only T20 cricket will be played between now and the tour of South Africa in February. George Bailey has been vocal about the tournament affecting his form in previous years. Yet, short-form cricket is a big reason why he can now call himself an Ashes winner.
In fact, the triumphant Ashes team in Perth is full of players who have enjoyed success in the BBL. Steve Smith was the winning captain in the opening edition of the tournament in 2012, and Brad Haddin was the captain of Sydney Sixers during their Champions League triumph the same year. Australia's coach Darren Lehmann was the mentor of the 2013 BBL champions Brisbane Heat. David Warner made his name in T20 and Nathan Coulter-Nile, who was the 12th man in Perth, rose to national prominence through the shortest format of the game.
So while the virtues of this tournament can be debated endlessly, and the likes of South Australia and Adelaide Strikers coach Darren Berry and Queensland and Brisbane Heat captain James Hopes continue to voice their concerns about the length of the BBL in relation to their Sheffield Shield campaigns, every team and every player is in the same boat, with plenty to play for.
As per previous years, the litany of player movements and short-term contracts is tough to keep track of for even the most vigilant of fans.
Michael Hussey has joined the Sydney Thunder, much to the chagrin of Scorchers coach Justin Langer. The Thunder have been the laughing stock of the BBL in the last two seasons and have shelved the helicopter that flew Chris Gayle from his penthouse in Sydney's eastern suburbs, to training at the ANZ Stadium. Instead, they have signed Hussey, Englishmen Eoin Morgan and Chris Woakes, and Sri Lanka's Tillakaratne Dilshan and Ajantha Mendis. They will also have David Warner for the opening-round derby against the Sixers.
No one player epitomises the nomadic nature of the BBL more than Mark Cosgrove, who has shifted cross-town from the Sydney Thunder to the Sixers while plying his trade domestically for Tasmania. He joins new signings Marcus North, Nathan Lyon and Englishmen Ravi Bopara and Chris Tremlett in Sixers' magenta for the first time.
There will be more Englishmen for the upcoming tournament than in the previous two editions. Alex Hales has moved from the Melbourne Renegades to the Adelaide Strikers, while Craig Kieswetter joins Australia's super-sub fielder Chris Sabburg at the Brisbane Heat. Luke Wright remains at the Melbourne Stars alongside Sri Lanka's Lasith Malinga.
Incredibly, Owais Shah, a veteran of no less than 10 T20 franchises worldwide, remains loyally linked to the Hobart Hurricanes, where Dimitri Mascarenhas and Pakistan batsman Shoaib Malik will join him.
The Melbourne Renegades will rely on spin again, with the side featuring Muttiah Muralitharan, Fawad Ahmed and Pakistan all-rounder Mohammad Hafeez.
Pat Cummins will miss his third straight BBL due to injury, while Mitchell Starc, James Faulkner and Ben Hilfenhaus have all been withdrawn from the early part of the tournament, as CA continue to carefully manage their fast-bowling stocks.
Warner, Bailey and Smith will be the only Test players available for the early part of the tournament, albeit for one game only.
So even with the Ashes decided and BBL in a strong financial position, the delicate balancing act remains. The difference, now, being that the urn is firmly in Australia's possession.
Alex Malcolm is a freelance writer based in Perth