Mass ILT20 exodus leaves BBL finals lacking star quality

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Laurie Evans is the fastest-scoring batter in the Big Bash League this season and blitzed 72 off 34 balls in Perth Scorchers’ final-ball defeat to Sydney Sixers on Tuesday, their final game of the regular home-and-away portion. But when Scorchers face Adelaide Strikers in Saturday’s Eliminator, he will be 9,000km away in Abu Dhabi.

Evans is one of seven players who will miss the BBL’s knockout stages in order to feature in the early stages of the ILT20 in the UAE. It is a scheduling clash which leaves three uncapped Englishmen as the only overseas signings left standing in Australia, and one which diminishes a season that has reinvigorated the BBL.

Strikers are the worst-affected club: they will lose this season’s joint-highest wicket-taker in Jamie Overton and the third-highest run-scorer in Chris Lynn, as well as Adam Hose. Brisbane Heat will be without Sam Billings and captain Colin Munro for Friday’s Qualifier against the Sixers, who themselves will have to cope without James Vince.

The principal reason does not take long to work out: the ILT20 pays players more than the BBL. “All the way through my career I’ve made a name for myself in finals and big games,” Evans said on Tuesday night. “It’s absolutely the worst time to be leaving, but I’ve got a job to do and a family to feed. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

Despite a 50% increase in the BBL’s salary cap ahead of this season, the ILT20 has more financial muscle. ILT20 franchises can spend up to US$2.75 million – including two ‘wildcard’ players – on salaries for a four-week tournament, while BBL teams are capped at US$2m for a seven-week period. Put simply, players earn more money for less work.

But wages are not the only consideration: most players had signed ILT20 contracts long before the BBL’s overseas draft. When Overton signed off from the Big Bash with an Instagram post on Monday, he denied a fan’s comment that Gulf Giants will pay him more. “They aren’t,” he said. “I had signed for them before I got drafted with the Strikers.”

The first two overseas drafts have split opinion and have added needless uncertainty for players who would otherwise have been retained directly. Billings, for example, has spent the last two seasons with the Heat, but had to go through the uncertainty of a televised draft between them rather than simply signing a contract extension.

Evans believes that there is also a “general consensus” among players that the BBL’s 44-match season could be played in a tighter timeframe: “I certainly feel that the BBL could squeeze some more games in. We’ve had a lot of downtime and I think that way, you’ll get the best players coming back over without any clashes, and get the finals done.

“It’s great that I can go and play as many tournaments as I can in a year,” Evans said. “I just think you need to move with the times. You’ve seen it in England with the Hundred: they want it done inside a month and it’s a brutal schedule, but that’s the game we’re in. The 10 games [per team] is about right, but I definitely think we could shorten the start and end.”

Several ILT20 franchises have the advantage of a global footprint. Evans will be aware that if his form continues in an Abu Dhabi Knight Riders shirt over the next month, it could result in contracts with their affiliates in the US (Los Angeles), the Caribbean (Trinbago) and even India (Kolkata) down the line. There is no equivalent with Scorchers.

The game is at saturation point worldwide: from Friday, the BBL’s finals will compete for attention not only with the ILT20, but also the Bangladesh Premier League, the SA20 and a swathe of bilateral international series, including Australia’s Test series against a West Indies side missing several players to those leagues.

The status quo is not working. Take Nicholas Pooran: he played three games in five days for Durban’s Super Giants in the first week of the SA20 but has since joined MI Emirates, whom he will briefly captain before flying to Australia for a T20I series. Players have never had so many opportunities to earn a living, and the global market has never been more competitive.

Even still, the BBL remains an attractive league for overseas players: they can base themselves and their families in Australia over Christmas, play for established teams in front of engaged crowds, and earn a competitive wage while doing so. Holding onto a set of high-quality overseas players for the knockout stages should not be an impossible task.

The BBL has been a major success this year, with the decision to reduce the number of games vindicated by a significant spike in crowd numbers and a compelling narrative that has sustained the league’s 13th season. But the talent drain to the UAE should remind its administrators that there is no room for complacency.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98



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