Under the roof at the Etihad Stadium, the Perth Scorchers are walking out to bowl. Their captain Adam Voges
only knows one thing: Mitchell Johnson will bowl the first over. Beyond that, who will bowl and when is governed by a mixture of Voges' assessment of his bowlers' form, the Scorchers' pre-match data analysis, and simple gut feel.
This fusion of intensive pre-match preparation and creativity during games is the hallmark of how the Scorchers have become the world's most dominant T20 domestic side. Since the 2013-14 season, they have won three of the four Big Bash Leagues. They have won 28 of their 42 games in this time - more than the Hobart Hurricanes and the Sydney Thunder combined.
At the Etihad Stadium, the Scorchers had three players playing for Australia in the Test two miles away - and Jason Behrendorff and Nathan Coulter-Nile, two outstanding T20 bowlers, injured, as well as Sam Whiteman, their best keeper. Yet even with six probable first-choice starters missing, plus another cluster of fringe players, the Scorchers still beat the Renegades, who had also won their first two games this year. Although the chaotic end and harum-scarum running between the wickets was out of kilter with the Scorchers' normal smooth efficiency, they still won with an over to spare. And so the Scorchers' domination of the BBL - the sort that the league's socialistic structure should render impossible - extended a little further.
Of course, some snipe that, when it comes to the Scorchers, the BBL is not really a socialistic sports league at all. Before this match Brad Hodge said their method of retaining their squad was "something that maybe should be looked into" - the implication seemingly that the Scorchers could take advantage of their strong links with Western Australia's teams in the 50-over and first-class competitions to stay within the salary cap.
What is true is that the Scorchers have deliberately cultivated continuity with Western Australia. "We've got the same coaching staff, the same administration staff, the same strength and conditioning staff," Justin Langer
, who is coach of both the Scorchers and Western Australia, said before this year's Big Bash. "What that means is we get them 12 months a year, and not just having to bring them in for six or seven weeks like most T20 tournaments around the world." In an age of transient T20 sides the Scorchers can feel like the world's only 12-month-a-year T20 team.
Yet the most fundamental reason that players stay with the Scorchers is rather mundane. They stay because they win. Since 2013-14, the Scorchers' win-loss record is 2.15; no one else has a higher ratio than 1.38.
The Scorchers seldom triumph by out-hitting the opposition; instead, they outbowl them. Over the past five seasons the Scorchers' batsmen only have the sixth-highest strike rate in the BBL. But they have comfortably the league's best bowling average and economy rate. In keeping with the rest of the BBL, the Scorchers prefer to chase, but they are astoundingly successful protecting low scores. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, they have won six out of 10 matches while defending totals of 150 or less.
No other team has come remotely close to that success rate. The Melbourne Stars have defended successfully once in five such attempts, the Brisbane Heat once in seven, the Sydney Sixers once in nine, and the other four teams have never won after scoring 150 or less batting first. In the process, the Scorchers have become the best embodiment of the theory, supported by the findings of many analysts, that teams win significantly more games when they restrict the opposition to 10% under a league's par score than when they score 10% above the par score themselves.
In the ninth over of the night, Voges is already using his sixth bowler. His attack is so strong that David Willey, England's regular T20 opening bowler, is third change and, although he bowls frugally, ends the innings with two overs left unbowled.
Voges' attack is not merely brimming with supremely skilled bowlers; it has wonderful variety, too. Alongside Willey there is the left-arm venom of Mitchell Johnson - almost as ferocious as when he ravaged England at the MCG four years ago; the right-arm pace of Jhye Richardson; the knuckleballs and savvy of Andrew Tye, whose upbringing in indoor cricket helped him become a unique T20 bowler; Ashton Agar's left-arm spin and James Muirhead's legspin, unused for three years in the BBL yet good enough to play for Australia in the 2014 World T20. That's an express left-armer opening with a right-armer; a mystery medium-fast bowler who is often as indecipherable as Russian code and has three T20 hat-tricks in 2017 alone; another left-armer, who specialises in prodigious swing; a left-arm spinner; and a legspinner. There is also Ashton Turner - an offspinner, just to complete the set - who has a frugal T20 economy rate of under seven yet has not bowled in this BBL.
Add it all together and the upshot is that Voges is empowered to find the optimum match-ups - which bowlers are best placed to stymie particular batsmen - and can tinker endlessly to prevent batsmen settling against a certain type of bowling.
That Voges succeeds so often - the Scorchers have taken 50 of a possible 60 wickets in their last six BBL games - is also a testament to the value of the Scorchers' analyst. Dean Plunkett is so appreciated by Langer that he used him with Australia when he was temporary international T20 coach this year.
Before each Big Bash game, Plunkett hands Langer and Voges a dossier with key performance indicators tailor-made for the ground and the opposition. Langer thinks these numbers clarify rather than confuse. "In all that pressure and the hectic nature of the game, the more we can simplify things the better. This might contradict most people's idea of data and analysis."
To Voges, "as captain it's just about staying a couple of balls ahead of the game - working out what the batters are trying to do, who they've got coming in next, what sort of matchups you want for those guys, as well as the guys who are in, and trying to balance that out. It doesn't always work out but that information helps you structure the innings."
On the field, his role is "to keep the bowlers' jobs as simple as possible, so they can concentrate on executing each ball that they want to deliver and I can worry about the rest - getting the match-ups right and the field placements right."
No T20 side in the world has proved as adept at overcoming the loss of bowlers as the Scorchers. Since 2013-14, six of the ten best bowlers in the BBL, according to the statistician Ric Finlay's metric, have been from Perth. Against Melbourne Renegades, two of them - Behrendorff and Coulter-Nile - are injured; another, Turner, is unused; another, Yasir Arafat - a surprising choice as overseas player signed on the basis of Plunkett's research into his death bowling prowess - left long ago.
Yet the characters change, but the story stays the same: The Scorchers remain relentless and remorseless in stifling opposition batting line-ups. Other T20 teams have tried to manufacture their fifth bowler's allocation, but the Scorchers unashamedly embrace specialists, even at the expense of a little batting depth.
In the field, Voges has a simple mantra for his bowlers: "be ready at all times." While they remain so, the Scorchers will continue to suggest that, for all that it is different about T20, one cricketing mantra remains the same. The best way to win matches is simply to outbowl the opposition.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts