AB de Villiers has backtracked from his earlier interest in taking part in the Big Bash League for 2019-20, in the process casting a major cloud over how Cricket Australia will satisfy its broadcast partners in the search for marquee talent to sell the competition.
Last month, de Villiers' management had indicated to BBL clubs that the former South Africa captain was interested in playing in the competition, albeit for a limited stretch towards its concluding stages in late January and early February, following his commitments in the Bangladesh Premier League.
However, ESPNcricinfo has learned that de Villiers has now flagged to interested clubs his unwillingness to take part in the BBL, having realised the degree to which CA and the BBL were looking towards him as a panacea for the tournament's plateaued television ratings and match-by-match attendances, amid its rapid growth from eight games per team to 14 each - a full home-and-away schedule.
Up to this point, CA, the clubs, and the broadcasters - Fox Sports and Seven - had appeared set to put together a package deal worth as much as A$350,000 to land de Villiers for a segment of the tournament, though there was a level of disquiet about how such a deal could be struck without an equitable system being in place for all clubs to secure big names.
There is some suspicion among clubs that de Villiers may still return to the bargaining table in search of a better offer, given the obvious desire for his presence in Australia next summer. But, for the moment at least, his signature appears likely to remain elusive, in what is a significant setback for the league. As recently as last week, CA's head of events and leagues, Anthony Everard, had expressed hope that players of de Villiers' ilk would add sheen to the summer, particularly in light of the national team's absence for a large chunk of January to tour India.
"Something we've really been focusing on irrespective of the Australian team going to India, we're buoyed by some conversations that some of the clubs are having and it's been reported some of the big names potentially coming out," Everard had said on May 7. "The success of the BBL has always been predicated on a combination of marketable overseas players, some young up and coming stars and the foundation of the Australian domestic players."
Other players, notably Andre Russell, have attracted the interest of BBL clubs and would demand a similar asking price, leaving the ball in CA's court as to whether or not the governing body would offer similar assistance to secure his services.
"Cricket Australia is committed to a competition that meets fan demands. This includes supporting BBL clubs to create a competition that features international stars to complement strong local talent," acting Head of the BBL Abhi Arunachalam said. "The recent rule changes have been implemented so clubs have the best opportunity to recruit overseas players among a cluttered global calendar."
A gaggle of top-tier talent has drained away from the BBL in recent times, including overseas names such as Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Bravo, Eoin Morgan and Russell, while bankable Australian players such as Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson have exited the tournament over the past 12 months, in part due to its increased length and demands.
Both CA and the clubs had been open to the institution of a system whereby each club could nominate one marquee overseas player to be paid outside the present BBL salary cap, but the plan fell afoul of the Australian Cricketers' Association, which has countered that the length of the tournament is a bigger obstacle than overseas player places.
Instead, CA on Saturday announced it would allow clubs to sign up to six overseas players over the course of the BBL, provided only two were part of 18-member squads at any one time, and replacements were approved by the tournament's technical committee.
"At the conclusion of each season we take the time to review what's working well and where we can make positive changes to the game and the fan experience," Everard said. "We've considered feedback from our fans and worked with relevant stakeholders of the game to implement changes that will continue to improve the competition in 2019/20.
"The ACA, BBL clubs and our broadcast partners have been an integral part of that, leading to the introduction of each club being allowed to contract up to six overseas players in BBL|09. The maximum number of overseas players permitted in a club's squad will remain at two, but there is now increased flexibility to contract up to six players throughout the season and rotate them in and out as required.
"It's a fantastic result for the competition, with clubs given a better chance at securing international players on a short-term basis to fit into an increasingly competitive global cricketing calendar."
CA's preference for Australian players to be available for the pointy end of the BBL may provide some salve to the problem of raising the tournament's profile, after the likes of Pat Cummins, Glenn Maxwell and Aaron Finch added lustre to its closing stages in 2019. David Warner, who has not played in the BBL since 2013-14, remains a potential signing for one of the clubs.