Last winter, the ECB was considering what it should do with Liam Livingstone during the off-season.
After making his T20I debut in 2017 and travelling as a back-up batsman on the Test tour to New Zealand in early 2018, Livingstone had slipped down the pecking order slightly, and was a prime candidate for inclusion on a winter programme as part of England's pathway system: he could have been taken to India as part of a spin camp, or to Australia for the Lions tour in the spring.
Instead, they decided to leave him largely to his own devices. By that stage, Livingstone had already signed contracts to play in the Mzansi Super League and the Big Bash, and had entered the Pakistan Super League draft. After he withdrew from the IPL to focus on red-ball cricket at the start of the following season, ECB decision-makers decided that a hands-off approach made perfect sense: they would let him flourish in T20 leagues, rather than pulling him out of them.
It may not have seemed like it, but it was a landmark moment in English cricket. "I think there's a perspective switch from this winter," Mo Bobat, the ECB's performance director, said at the time. "We've deliberately had players that we would [previously] have on centralised programmes that we have allowed to go off and take up some of these opportunities, and provided support which adds value on top of that."
Considering global T20 leagues as part of the ECB's individualised programmes represented a significant change in mindset. The attitude shift towards the IPL among those in charge of English cricket has been well-documented, but this amounted to a recognition that for some players, a winter as an overseas player for a franchise would be a more valuable experience than a Lions tour.
Instead of me or the ECB putting on programmes where we try and develop white-ball skills, we can suggest they go off and play franchise cricket if that's what is in their best interests
Mo Bobat, ECB performance director
A year later, the benefits of that change in thinking have become apparent. With international travel restrictions and the need to keep fringe players around the main squad due to Covid-19 protocols, there is no Lions tour this winter. Instead, 13 Englishmen will play in the Big Bash, with several expected to be involved in the Abu Dhabi T10 at the end of January and four taking part in the ongoing Lanka Premier League.
"Because of the fact we are now having to have larger squads with reserves, those players closest to the England sides are actually involved more frequently and they're in the line of sight more," David Court, the ECB's player identification lead, said. "The Big Bash will provide a really good opportunity for those players who would normally have been on a Lions tour to get some exposure and some cricket. We'll certainly be observing performances in those tournaments and keeping in touch with those players and monitoring their progress closely.
"Ed [Smith, the national selector] is extremely keen for players to go into pressurised, high-quality tournaments, and recognises the value that brings to our players in terms of their development and their ability to perform on the big stage in world tournaments. There is definitely a belief that it is beneficial to the players to experience these global leagues."
In the case of the Big Bash, there are multiple factors at play in the English influx. For a start, the increase in the number of overseas players allowed per team from two to three has opened up opportunities, and England's success in both ODI and T20I cricket since 2015 has helped make their players a more attractive proposition.
Equally, England have a "competitive advantage", according to Bobat, in that the vast majority of T20 leagues take place outside of their home season. "For most other Test-playing countries, it clashes with their season, which presents a problem," he said. "We've got franchise cricket happening in our off-season, so instead of me or the ECB putting on programmes where we try and develop white-ball skills, we can suggest they go off and play franchise cricket if that's what is in their best interests."
That has seen several players gain opportunities in recent years, but has been particularly evident this winter. Clashes between most teams' international series and the Big Bash have made a handful of Englishmen the rarest of commodities, as high-quality overseas players available for the duration of the tournament. As a result, all eight teams have signed an English player at some stage - though Jonny Bairstow has since withdrawn from his Melbourne Stars deal.
He is one of three men to withdraw - Tom Banton and Tom Curran pulled out citing bubble fatigue - but the four whose involvement looked in peril due to the Covid-19 outbreak in Cape Town are still set to fly later this week.
There could yet be a 14th, too, with Jake Ball lined up by the Sydney Sixers as a possible replacement for Curran. Each of them will arrive at the tournament with something to prove, but their collective involvement in the first place is a sign that the stock of English players in the world of T20 leagues has never been higher.