Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo
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The WBBL has been the undisputed leader in domestic leagues for the women's game, but it has been warned it can't take that position for granted with the increasing opportunities around the world.
As the tournament, which begins on Thursday, prepares for its first normal edition in two seasons following the impact of the pandemic, there are already signs that the competition won't always have the first call on the leading overseas players.
India's Smriti Mandhana has opted out having flagged recently that she would monitor her workload - it's understood she had agreed on a deal with Sydney Thunder - while fast bowler Issy Wong has effectively been withdrawn by the ECB. Fellow England player Danni Wyatt, who has signed for Brisbane Heat, will have a delayed arrival as her workload is managed.
"This is a very real challenge," Rachael Haynes, the Sydney Thunder captain who will play her final season before retirement, told ESPNcricinfo. "People have often looked at it in the men's space, but it is happening in the women's game as well. It's already started.
"Some of the best players in the world are choosing not to come out and play and take a break during this time. I think the competition needs to be really proactive around it and not just assume the WBBL will always be the best competition and people will always want to come out and play it."
While the WBBL remains the most well-established and star-studded women's league in the world - the leading spinner in the world, Sophie Ecclestone, will play for the first time this year and the best allrounder, Sophie Devine, returns for Perth Scorchers - the next 12 months will start to give a clearer picture of what the future may look like. The Hundred in England now has two years under its belt and, while debate rages around its impact on the men's game, it has widely been considered a success for the women.
The WIPL is expected to launch next March and the PCB have announced their own league to run along the men's PSL. The CPL added a women's competition for the first time this year while the invitational Fairbreak competition, which started this year in the UAE, has ambitions to be a regular offering. Currently, the WBBL, Hundred and WIPL have unofficial windows in the first edition of the women's Future Tours Programme.
Australia allrounder Ashleigh Gardner has suggested the WBBL may need to consider reducing the length of the tournament so that it is a shorter commitment for those coming from overseas. To balance that out, she offered the solution of a state-based T20 competition to ensure domestic players do not lose out on their volume of cricket in a season.
"I think [the WBBL] is the best tournament in the world, we have the best domestic players in the world, and that's where the Big Bash needs to think about how we are going to keep the best internationals coming over," she told ESPNcricinfo. "Whether that's potentially reducing games, it's something that us Aussie players have spoken about. But, on the flip side, our state girls only get 12 WNCL games then the Big Bash so they don't actually get a lot of cricket.
"So if it is actually [about] pulling games back in the Big Bash to get those internationals, then potentially having a T20 tournament that's state-based to change it up. That's what they do over in England with the Hundred and their own T20 tournament. If we did replicate something like that, think around the 10-game mark [for WBBL] would be perfect. It's a long commitment to come here for 14 games and potentially finals. We need to have some good things to lure the best players in."
Currently, each team is allowed up to five marquee players, which are classified as those with CA central contracts or overseas internationals, and there can be a maximum of three from each. For example, Sydney Sixers' roster is made up of three Australian players (Gardner, Alyssa Healy and Ellyse Perry) and two overseas (Suzie Bates and Ecclestone). Whereas Thunder only have four marquees made up of Haynes, Tammy Beaumont, Chloe Tryon and Amy Jones.
"It might be about having a bit more flexibility in the contracts and the number of internationals you are able to have as part of your squad so if someone wants to play only a portion of the season it's not at the disadvantage of the club who might want to get them," Haynes said. "This competition needs to continue to aspire and really lead the way like it has done in the past, but can't assume it will also be the case."
However, Haynes and Gardner are of no doubt that it is good for the women's game that these conversations now need to be had.
"It's a really good space to be in, absolutely, and probably the silver lining is it's not just more playing opportunities for internationals, it's more opportunities for everyone," Haynes said. "So our domestic players, too, we've seen over the last couple of years players like Sammy-Jo Johnson, Georgia Redmayne, played the Hundred where a couple of years ago those opportunities just didn't exist. So it's a really positive thing, not just from the playing side but financially, they are getting better compensation, so it's a more viable career."
"It just shows where the game's gone and globally where it's going," Gardner said. "There's been a lot of chat about the WIPL starting. So potentially to be involved in that, and the Hundred has been good for cricket in England and the global game. There's certainly plenty of tournaments which are really good and we want to keep the WBBL as the best one, so how can we do that and keep those players coming back."