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News Analysis

Warner signing only one part of a much bigger challenge for BBL

With the increase in T20 leagues, the next couple of years will show whether BBL can work in the rapidly changing landscape

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
Cricket Australia had no choice. They had to get the chequebook out to bring David Warner back to the BBL.
Even though as a CA centrally contracted player it's difficult to see how he ever could have gone to the UAE's ILT20, the mere link of him to the new league was enough to set alarm bells ringing.
With the increase in T20 competitions, particularly in that January window, what is becoming clear - if it wasn't before - is that with a demand for top overseas players having your domestic stars available is vital.
And that is also why the Warner deal, which will allow him five games before the finals, while important and significant, is also only one part of a much bigger challenge for the BBL.
The tournament has a big pre-season week coming up. On Monday the full list of names for the overseas draft next Sunday will be confirmed along with the players allocated to the platinum category whose salary, like Warner's, will be topped up by CA.
However, while splashing the cash at overseas names, CA will also need to look at its own players. Warner's big-money deal has hastened discussions about what the leading Australia names earn in the league with the top figure, which the likes of Glenn Maxwell, Marcus Stoinis and Adam Zampa will hold, currently around the AU$200,000 mark for a 14-game regular season. That is all but sure to change when the next MoU is agreed.
After being held back by two years due to Covid-19, the introduction of the draft has been a key part of the attempts to revive the BBL which has suffered an identity crisis pretty much from the moment it expanded from its original, leaner size when the dollar signs could not be resisted.
While it would be overstating things to suggest that BBL talk has dominated the airwaves in recent weeks, there has certainly been more of a narrative around the competition than was previously the case in July and August (not all of it is positive, but all publicity, right?).
The bottom line, however, will be how the tournament fares on the field in December and January after two seasons of battling border closures, bubbles and crowd restrictions of the pandemic. While Covid brought some unprecedented challenges - and keeping the tournament afloat was a herculean challenge (whether it went too far can be debated) - the warning signs were there beforehand.
The central debate around the BBL will always be its length, which this season is running close to eight weeks with the final in early February. Outside of the IPL, which has its dedicated window that is only getting bigger, it is the longest domestic T20 tournament of its type. And, for the leading players, the money still doesn't match what's on offer in the UAE or South Africa for a shorter competition.
Whether a step back can be taken when the new broadcast deal is put together (a less is more approach) remains to be seen, but this season will be a test case of whether the current length remains viable. Or a lot more money needs to be found. It is expected that the majority of the platinum overseas players in the draft will only be available until the end of December before dispersing for the new tournaments. Replacements can be signed but won't be the A-listers, although that does not mean they won't be good players.
In theory, Australia's Test players will be able to step into the breach after the final match against South Africa in Sydney now that the ODI series has been cancelled as CSA puts its new domestic league first. Warner, along with Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne, are now inked in but there may not be many more.
Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins will be resting while the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Steven Smith is undecided ahead of the four-Test tour to India. However, in many ways the player who now most sums up the ongoing dilemma the BBL has is Josh Hazlewood. He is the No. 1 men's T20I bowler in the world and may not line up in Australia's own domestic tournament depending on his workload.
In the recently confirmed men's FTP, CA has done what it can to try and forge a small mid-January window for the BBL. Their white-ball-only players will be free which is crucial, but Test demands will overlap in most seasons. In the 2023-24 summer, for example, which could potentially prove the swansong to Warner's international career, there are set to be Tests against West Indies in January (pushed later by the whole season being constrained by the ODI World Cup). In 2024-25 there are two Tests in Sri Lanka and in January 2026-27 there is a Test tour to India.
That is not to say these are the wrong decisions, there is a wider debate about what the BBL wants to be. It is a relief in many ways that in Australia Test cricket remains such an important feature, but it means the major issues keep circling back on themselves. In terms of Australia's home season, there continues to be the desire to cram the majority of the major men's cricket into basically a two-month window in December and January outside of World Cup years such as this one. Making the most of the school holidays is an understandable aim, but it leaves very little room for manoeuvre.
Talk to people at CA and they will say that the BBL and international career has always coexisted and can continue to do so, but the way the game is moving they are increasingly becoming an outlier in that regard. The next couple of years will show whether it can work in the rapidly changing landscape.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo