Big Bash League 2015-16 December 16, 2015

Big Bash takes summer's top billing

The Big Bash League is heading into its fifth year and is now much more than just a staging post on the way to the summit of the CLT20

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Sixers, Thunder 'Batting for Change'

Every mainstream entertainer goes through numerous phases of growth in terms of audience and attention. The band at home in a club might struggle to advance to arenas, or fail to connect with a raucous gathering at an outdoor festival. The solo artist packing out arenas might not enjoy or resonate so much in a stadium.

Artistically, those who excelled in personal tales told in confessional manner may be unable to create the widescreen musical vistas often demanded by a mass following. Sometimes that leap is made before the performer is quite ready, others well after they have done their time, still more never at all.

Five years into its history, the Big Bash League is thrust into the position of topping the bill for the Australian summer's prime cricket months. This has come about largely through the scheduling of a hapless West Indies team for the Boxing Day and New Year's Tests, a decision made some years ago but well after the regional collective had ceased being a factor away from their home islands.

The leap the BBL must make is summed up by the fact that most of West Indies' best players are going to be turning out for Twenty20 teams rather than their Test side, in matches played concurrently. Dwayne Bravo summed up the primary reason for this choice - longstanding dysfunction at home leading many players to conclude they are simply better appreciated elsewhere.

"I get frustrated at times," Bravo said, "not only for myself but for all the other cricketers, Chris Gayle, Darren Sammy, Kieron Pollard, Andre Russell, we all want to represent West Indies. But sometimes the way we have been treated over the years … why should we actually fight with West Indies' cricket where the rest of the world opens their arms for us? Yes they pay us well but at the same time we never feel disrespect when we play for those teams around the world.

"We feel love. We feel well-respected. Do we get that type of treatment back in the region? No we don't."

Caribbean players are developing relationships with BBL teams that, after five years, are starting to feel a little more like clubs than marketing conceits. This is apparent nowhere more tangibly than at the Sydney Thunder, where a hellish start to the team's story has given way to something more methodical and character-driven. Tellingly, they are the only club to have downsized their venue: this year they have moved from the catacombs of Sydney Olympic Stadium to the more boutique Showground stadium, where crowds of 20,000 will have atmosphere.

Personified by their captain Michael Hussey, the Thunder are doing all they can to usurp the established hegemony of the SCG-based Sixers. A narrow loss last summer will form part of their motivation on Thursday night. "It hurt a lot that night for sure, we got ourselves in a position where we should have won that match and couldn't finish it off," Hussey said. "Great innings by Jordan Silk helped the Sixers get over the line. It certainly hurt me a lot, and I know a few of the guys who were part of that game last year it hurt them a lot as well.

"It's taken time, you can't just build a team, culture, environment overnight, it's going to take time. I feel like the amount of work that's been done off the field to get things in place has been incredible and we've done a lot of work to try and build a good roster and people of good character as well, that's been the philosophy of the team. I think we've got it to a place where we're really confident. Certainly no excuses coming into this season."

The BBL is more significant in other ways also. It is no longer viewed as simply a staging post on the way to the summit of the CLT20 - it is now the peak of achievement for an Australia-based T20 player, and the only way they can grab the attention of IPL talent scouts. For each of the past four editions, it was understood that the true prize was qualification for the final, given its attendant CLT20 qualification and associated riches. This time the decider will be just that.

Playing ranks have swelled, too, with Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara bringing their brands of Sri Lankan genius to the tournament. Samuel Badree, another West Indian, will grant the Brisbane Heat a quality spin bowling option through the middle overs.

The BBL brand has been vitalized by the presence of players like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene © AFP

As ever, player availability due to national team duty will have an influence over the tournament - Shane Watson's place in the plans of Darren Lehmann may very well impact those of the Thunder. Usman Khawaja will not be playing Thursday night in order to have the best chance of being fit for the Boxing Day Test. Renegade Callum Ferguson's hopes of a successful BBL and a limited overs call-up in the new year have been cruelly dashed by a serious knee injury.

Of course, the greater attention to be lavished on the BBL this year will also bring greater scrutiny of its quality and ability to maintain the interest of all fans, not just those who have taken to tuning in after the Test match day has run its course. There remains an enduring contradiction to T20, as summed up by Ed Cowan - a Sydney Sixer - in his diary of the 2010-11 Sheffield Shield season.

"One of the first things they taught us at university," Cowan wrote, "was that humans react to incentives - and this format is the most lucrative and prestigious in town. Less work for more pay ... You can be paid a lot more for not being as good as you used to have to be. Perhaps that's more 'democratic', but it also seems to make efficiency sufficient when the objective should surely always be excellence."

T20 is indisputably the most cashed up of cricket's formats, but the way it is played, it is also the least taxing. A preponderance of cricketers who have retired from international or Test cricket in order to pursue T20 cheques tells that tale succinctly, and as Brad Haddin quipped: "If someone's bowling really fast I can stand outside leg and have a swing and say I was trying to move the game forward and not be scared!"

One of cricket's truisms has it that the longer the format the greater the chance of the superior team being able to prove themselves as such. In order to get a fair measure of the best T20 sides, a greater volume of short form matches need to be played, taking a greater physical and mental toll than they currently do.

As Hussey said: "I think the more the better, we enjoy playing, the competition's really strong. I guess it is pretty cutthroat, with eight games you can't afford too many slip ups along the way, and so the competition's really high. But in a way that's a real positive as well, you know you've got to be on your game and playing your best cricket all the time, you can't afford to have too many slip ups. That's part of having a good roster."

To amend things slightly, more matches need to be played if the game's players and administrators actually want to know who is the best. If not, then T20 will remain a diverting entertainment and a healthy revenue source, but not the defining test of a cricketer. A summer in which the traditional Test matches cannot provide the same level of intrigue and drama as those of recent seasons is a time to open up that kind of debate. Australian cricket waits to see how the BBL will handle top billing.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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