Mike Hussey, Welsh Fire's new men's coach, has admitted that signing Shaheen Shah Afridi and Haris Rauf in last week's Hundred draft was a "gamble" due to uncertainty over their availability, but one he believes could have "a huge pay-off".
The limited availability of overseas players has been a constant issue across the Hundred's first two seasons, owing to clashes with bilateral series and the Caribbean Premier League. Most teams responded by prioritising availability over star power in Thursday's draft, with Babar Azam, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell all going unselected as a result.
But Fire, who brought in Hussey as a replacement for Gary Kirsten after a winless 2022 season, broke the mould in signing two of the world's leading white-ball bowlers for a combined £160,000, despite a lack of clarity over Pakistan's fixture list in August, when the Hundred will be played.
Fire will play their opening match on August 2, away at Manchester Originals, and Hussey anticipates Shaheen and Rauf will be available for seven of their eight group games. Pakistan are due to finish a two-Test series in Sri Lanka in late July, and have a three-match ODI series against Afghanistan pencilled in for late August, leading into the Asia Cup and then the World Cup.
"We've been told that they're available up to about the 20th," Hussey told ESPNcricinfo and the Press Association. "I think that's about seven games, and there's a chance that the series they've got against Afghanistan may be called off as well. It's a bit of a gamble, but if that is the case, it'd be a huge win for us to have them for the whole season, which would be amazing for us.
"They are big stars, and they're match-winners as well. The first seven games is a fair chunk of the tournament. If they can come in and have a huge impact and win us a few games, and get us right up there, then that will help build some confidence and belief. And then there's still some quality performers out there that we can attract as suitable replacements.
"The gamble is, we know we've got them for seven games at this stage, but it could also be the whole tournament which would be a huge pay-off for us. Obviously they are both world-class performers and have performed on the biggest stage in the past, so hopefully they can have a big impact for us."
The pair have played together extensively for Pakistan, and have also been integral parts of Lahore Qalandars' back-to-back PSL titles over the last two seasons, revitalising a struggling franchise in a way that Hussey hopes they can repeat in Cardiff.
"It's great that we've got them as a pair," he added, "so they've got a bit of camaraderie off the field and both have a buddy there as well. I think that's going to hopefully help them settle in nicely."
Tom Abell lined up as captain
Welsh Fire's first move in the draft was to try and sign Tim David, but as Hussey had anticipated, Southern Brave used their Right-To-Match (RTM) to bring him back for a third stint with them. Instead, they used their first pick to bring in Somerset's Tom Abell on a £125,000 contract, which will be further topped up by a captaincy bonus.
"I obviously did a lot of background [work] and got a lot of information from a lot of different sources," Hussey said of Abell, "and the information I got was that he sounds like an outstanding character and a really good leader, which is something that we identified that we really wanted this season."
It took several conversations with Hussey to prise Abell away from Birmingham Phoenix, who offered him a retention despite injuries limiting him to a single game across the Hundred's first two seasons. "Tom's such a loyal guy, so the initial conversations were a bit nervous," Hussey said.
"He really respected Birmingham so much and they'd stood by him when he was injured in a previous season, and so he was very reluctant to leave them, to be honest. We had to work extremely hard to help him see the vision of what we had in place, and what we would hopefully create over the next few years, and that we saw him as a huge part of that, particularly being the leader of the team.
"Thankfully, he made the choice to go back into the draft and obviously to secure his services we were going to take him as early as we could. We've got a really good player that can hopefully play well in the conditions in Cardiff in particular - but all around the country as well. And then obviously throwing in those leadership capabilities as well was something that we were really attracted to."
Their other picks were David Willey (£125k), Glenn Phillips (£75k), Roelof van der Merwe (£50k), Stevie Eskinazi and Dan Douthwaite (both £40k), and while the draft system meant Hussey inevitably missed out on some targets, he said he was "very happy" with his squad overall.
Fire had previously retained only five players (Joe Clarke, Ollie Pope, David Payne, Jake Ball and George Scrimshaw) from their 2022 squad, with some players turning down pay rises in order to move elsewhere - most notably Ben Duckett, who openly asked Hussey not to RTM him and allow him to move to Birmingham Phoenix.
Bairstow featuring would be 'a bonus'
Jonny Bairstow is allocated to Fire as their England player on an all-format central contract, though Hussey is not expecting him to play much part in the Hundred, which is sandwiched between the Ashes and the World Cup. "Whatever we can get is an absolute bonus," he said.
But he added that Pope is keen to use it as a chance to improve and showcase his white-ball skills, after scant opportunities over the last four years. "We'll be very respectful: the Ashes is a huge campaign, and very demanding both mentally and physically. [But] he sounds keen to play as much as he possibly can."
As a Glamorgan player, Douthwaite's selection was particularly notable. Fire's squad did not contain a single player from their host county last season, leading Nasser Hussain to deliver a damning verdict on them: "there's neither been many Welsh, nor much Fire".
Hussey was keen to change that, and suggested Fire will strongly consider adding at least one more Glamorgan player as a 'wildcard' pick after the group stages of the T20 Blast. "I do think we have a responsibility to really engage with the local community - to really make them feel like we're playing for them and that we're really invested in this team," he said.
The easiest way to do that is simple: "We need to perform on the field to attract crowds." After eight defeats out of eight last summer, the only way is up.