There was a time when English cricketers spending the winter in Australia could expect to find themselves starting the season in the second grade. Now, they are the hottest commodity available: 15 of the 24 confirmed overseas signings for this year's Big Bash are Englishmen, all eight teams have at least one in their squad and both Sydney teams have three. England's domination of last season's overseas player pool was not a one-off.
"I don't know - I thought the Aussies hated us," Ben Duckett, whose stint at Brisbane Heat will be his first in the BBL, joked this week when asked how English players had come to dominate the overseas player pool. Availability is the biggest factor, with BBL clubs keen to make signings for the full season and players keen to trade the English winter for Australian sunshine but England's recent success in limited-overs internationals and unrivalled white-ball depth have also been crucial.
"When Australia were the best Test team in the world in the 2000s," one recruitment insider said, "you'd see their fringe players go to England and play in the County Championship every year. It's the same dynamic in the Big Bash, but for white-ball cricket." The cycle is self-reinforcing: England's success makes their fringe players more attractive signings in overseas leagues, and their fringe players' exposure to those tournaments creates a pool of players ready for international selection. As demonstrated by a reserve squad's 3-0 ODI series win against Pakistan this year, there is immense strength in depth.
Liam Livingstone's breakthrough year in an England shirt is a case in point. In 2019, Livingstone sat down with the ECB to discuss his winter plans and agreed that he would be best served by playing in T20 leagues rather than touring Australia with England Lions. "I'd already played two winters of Lions cricket," Livingstone explained. "I wanted to go away, get out my comfort zone and learn in these different environments.
"The pressure you get as an overseas player is probably like no other and there's pressure on you to perform, right from game one, wherever you go in the world. It really sets you up better for when you get back to international cricket." After two dominant seasons with Perth Scorchers, he slotted into England's T20I side this year and made a 42-ball hundred in his fourth game since returning. Coaches who have worked for counties or Hundred teams have cherry-picked players who they think could follow his lead - or used their contacts for recommendations.
Several other players find themselves in a similar position now, hence the involvement of so many Englishmen in not only the BBL, but the Abu Dhabi T10 and the Pakistan Super League too: like Livingstone, Phil Salt and Will Jacks both played in the Big Bash last season and have had excellent T10 campaigns, while Tom Banton, who starred for Brisbane Heat two years ago, will fly from Abu Dhabi to the Lanka Premier League this weekend.
Livingstone is proof that Big Bash success provides players with a clear route to selection in T20 internationals. Eoin Morgan regularly cited the competition last winter while talking up James Vince, who made 98 not out and 95 in Sydney Sixers' two knockout games last season and was a travelling reserve in England's World Cup squad.
Reece Topley, who will make his BBL debut for Melbourne Renegades next week, said that the tournament will give players "an opportunity… to impress the right people" ahead of next year's T20 World Cup in Australia. Tymal Mills, Saqib Mahmood, Tom Curran, George Garton and Sam Billings will all be in the conversation for selection for England's squad and could further their respective cases in the next two months.
For players who are slightly further from international selection - six of the 15 Englishmen in this year's BBL are uncapped in T20Is - a winter in Australia provides a chance to develop in a league that they grew up watching on cold winter mornings. There is no major difference in the flat limited-overs pitches found in both countries but few county cricketers have experienced Australia's vast ground dimensions. Nottinghamshire's Joe Clarke will trade Trent Bridge for the MCG during his stint at Melbourne Stars: "I have to adapt my game for the ground, which is fantastic," he said.
The majority of the English imports will be familiar names to Australian fans but a handful may be unknown. It is a reflection of the BBL's lack of financial pulling power - salaries in the league are relatively low given the competition's duration - that only a handful of major international names are now involved and the addition of a third overseas slot in each playing XI last season has opened the door for lesser-known overseas players.
Hobart Hurricanes have signed Harry Brook, the PCA's young player of the year for the 2021 English season, as a specialist middle-order batter who could exploit the Power Surge overs, as well as Jordan Thompson, Brook's Yorkshire team-mate and a combative seam-bowling allrounder. Tom Abell, the innovative middle-order batter who has been approached by Jos Buttler for tips on playing the reverse-scoop, will join up with the Heat after England Lions' tour match against Australia A and Laurie Evans will be the glue holding the Scorchers' batting line-up together.
At the other end of the scale, Vince and Alex Hales will again be expected to lead the way for their respective Sydney teams, with Billings putting a frustrating few months running the drinks behind him by hitting 90 off 45 balls in a warm-up match this week. Curran's return is also significant for the Sixers - he has been a key player with both bat and ball during his two previous seasons with them - while Garton will hope to build on a solid IPL season with Royal Challengers Bangalore through all-round contributions for Adelaide Strikers.
England players in BBL 2021-22:
Adelaide Strikers: George Garton
Brisbane Heat: Tom Abell, Ben Duckett
Hobart Hurricanes: Harry Brook, Jordan Thompson
Melbourne Renegades: Reece Topley
Melbourne Stars: Joe Clarke
Perth Scorchers: Laurie Evans, Tymal Mills
Sydney Sixers: Tom Curran, Chris Jordan, James Vince
Sydney Thunder: Sam Billings, Alex Hales, Saqib Mahmood