The Perth Scorchers squad is perhaps the most remarkable in T20 cricket, and if you've been wondering how they have built and maintained it, you're not the only one.
As they reach yet another BBL semi-final, the talk about the methods behind their list-management - and to what degree they are questionable - has grown. In particular, focus has been drawn to the practice of "bundling" contracts - whereby state associations pay players enhanced Sheffield Shield salaries so they can be paid less than market value by the corresponding local BBL club to work around the competition's salary cap.
Bundling is the word players and coaches use most when privately talking about the Scorchers. State and BBL are contracts are "separate", according to Cricket Australia (CA), so you cannot sign a player to your BBL team on the promise you will also hire them for your Shield team.
Brad Hodge was vague but insinuating when he brought it up earlier this season, ahead of a game between his team Melbourne Renegades and the Scorchers. Hodge said he couldn't explain how the Scorchers had maintained their list, suggesting "it's something that maybe should be looked into". He didn't get drawn further into it but said later he was talking about the single-city lists - that is, cities unlike Melbourne and Sydney that have two franchises.
Dirk Nannes was far more forthright, telling the ABC that he had "ethical problems" with list-manipulation. "A player who does not play four-day cricket can't be almost on a maximum state contract and getting a pittance for their Big Bash contract," he said. "That just shouldn't happen. You shouldn't be able to manipulate your Big Bash list by using your state contracts.
"Of course, Perth is going to have a natural advantage because playing over there has always been hard... but when there is a little bit else in there and they have the ability to pay a little bit more, not so much pay a bit more but manipulate the system to retain, I think there is an issue that needs to be looked at."
The case that crops up most often in private conversations is that of Andrew Tye. Many people within the game believe Tye is on a maximum state contract with WA, though officials have told ESPNcricinfo that is not the case. Neither CA nor the WACA disclose player contract details but ESPNcricinfo understands that Tye's WA contract is approximately A$80-90,000 and around A$90,000 for the Scorchers. Tye's WA contract would be unusual given this year he has played no Shield games and just four List A matches. In Tye's entire career he's played eight first-class games and just one since 2015. But minimum contracts are only 65000, so it's not that big a deal.
The more significant problem is that his BBL contract would appear low. According to some GMs and list managers, on the free market Tye's services are worth anywhere between A$140-180,000. But if that salary was actually paid to Tye it would make it very hard for Scorchers to keep so many top players. As it is, other interested clubs would need to offer Tye more than A$200,000 from within a salary cap of A$1.6 million to have a chance of poaching him.
CA deny that bundling occurs. "State contracts and BBL contracts are separate and are not bundled," a spokesman said. "There is no bundling". And Kim McConnie, the BBL head, told the Herald Sun: "Our clubs are really well-versed with the contracting rules and from a CA and an integrity point of view we're really comfortable that they know the rules, and follow the rules".
But ESPNcricinfo understands that two franchises contacted CA within the past year to ask what was being done about bundling. They were told that bundling was not actually illegal under the CA rules, but that it was discouraged. ESPNcricinfo tried to interview the official they spoke to, but CA said no one would talk about the issue. When asked to show the rule on bundling CA said: "There isn't one rule to point to specifically, nor are they made publicly available as it sits within the MoU document".
However, there is a regulation, contained within CA's contracting guidelines - unavailable for public consumption - that prohibits state associations from making any payment that represents a "sign-on fee, a bonus, an incentive payment or an inducement" for a player to choose one BBL team over another. How closely an overly generous state contract matches that definition of "inducement" is the question many are asking.
Nevertheless, CA's public position is that there is no bundling, and privately that there is also no rule to stop bundling. Bundling, therefore, is not an issue. But if you are a smart list manager for a single-team city, you could easily bundle up your payments under CA rules and dominate either red or white-ball cricket. It wouldn't be a problem if all teams could do it, but they can't. Only single-city teams can do it. Perth have the same CEO/GM/coach for both their BBL franchise and the state side. In Sydney, however, there are three CEOs, three coaches and two list managers, spread across two franchises and the state team.
So you'd have to convince the state coach and CEO that he should pay, for instance, Steve O'Keefe more money so the Sixers could keep him. But why would the state coach want less money for his team, and why would the city's other franchise, the Thunder want O'Keefe to stay with the Sixers, a BBL opponent?
It's worth remembering how successful WA have been since Justin Langer left an assistant role with Australia to become coach in late 2012. They've won five limited-overs tournaments - two 50-over titles, and three BBLs (and made the final on another occasion) while also appearing in two Shield finals.
A look at the Scorchers list, and the overlap with those who are part of WA's Shield squad, is instructive. According to their website, the Scorchers have 24 players listed this year. Seventeen of them are also WA-contracted players. D'Arcy Short and Marcus Stoinis are the only big names who are contracted for WA and not at the Scorchers. And Stoinis returned home in possession of a pre-existing deal with the Melbourne Stars.
By contrast, Sydney Thunder have seven players from 17 with NSW contracts. The Melbourne Stars have seven from 18 on Victoria's books. The only team with a higher percentage of local state-contracted players in their side is Brisbane Heat. They have 14 on their list of 19 (counting Shadab Khan and Yasir Shah as only one player) contracted to Queensland. While most of the talk around bundling focuses on the Scorchers, every single-city team - including Brisbane - has been accused of it.
But even the top-up players for the Scorchers - Tim David and Josh Phillipe - played for age-group WA teams this year. And if you include Adam Voges, who has played for WA within the last year, the Scorchers have 20 players from the WA set-up, not counting, Hayden Morton, who played age-group cricket for WA. In their entire squad, the Scorchers only have one player contracted to another state: James Muirhead.
Added to the bundling is said to be an element of coercion in how Scorchers have maintained this list, and it is perhaps best to start with Tye again. Tye was not always a superstar. At 26 he was a club cricketer, and then he became a handy limited-overs bowler. He didn't play T20 cricket until BBL03 and only showed glimpses of his potential. Sydney Thunder made him an offer for BBL04; according to officials familiar with the situation a verbal agreement was made. Then, according to multiple sources, Tye came back and said WA had said if he does take the deal with Thunder, he might miss out on state opportunities with WA. The Thunder reported this to CA at the time, but when questioned, those familiar with the case say, Tye denied having ever said it, or that it was the case.
When CA were asked about this, they said: "We don't disclose details of our individual integrity inquiries, unless they have an outcome that needs to be on the public record." Tye played for WA and the Scorchers and now he's a star.
Before BBL06, Damien Wright, then head coach of the Hobart Hurricanes, saw the unsigned D'Arcy Short play and offered him a deal. Short was unsure whether to take the deal or wait to see what happened with Perth, his state. The Hurricanes came back with a better deal, and it was clear that some WA Test players would be around as Australia went through a rebuilding phase.
So Short agreed to a deal with the Hurricanes via email but then tried to back out. Privately, the Hurricanes think it was because he was given the same speech about opportunity that Tye was. WA sources suggest Short's love of the Scorchers made him not want to leave; whichever way you look at it, Short was willing to give up a decent contract with Hobart, a guaranteed opening position (they had traded Ben Dunk away) to be non-contracted with the Scorchers. Officials involved in the matter say the Scorchers fought for him to get out of the contract (the Scorchers deny this) and that CA got involved (CA deny this). Short has now gone on to star with the Hurricanes.
And there is also the case of Hilton Cartwright. For BBL03, Cartwright was offered a contract by a franchise, but he decided not to take it and remain in Perth as a replacement player. Cartwright actively chose not to play ahead of playing, to not be paid instead of being paid.
At the start of this season, Langer laughed when it was suggested his team were favourites again. He had injuries to seven of his players, making it impossible to field his first-choice XI, let alone think about winning the league. Against the Thunder, in a game away from home, they had six first-choice players unavailable. They only lost off the last ball (it was a full toss, and they probably should have won). In that game, Matthew Kelly made his debut. He's a tall, correct fast-medium bowler who hits the seam. But from a limited sample size, Kelly has looked better than the first-choice seamers at the Thunder.
Kelly's only playing because Mitchell Johnson has been rested, Nathan Coulter-Nile and Jason Behrendorff are injured, and Tye and Jhye Richardson are playing for Australia. Factor in Joel Paris, who also played for Australia a couple of seasons back, and that effectively makes Kelly their seventh-choice seamer (not including Mitchell Marsh's bowling). This year they have often had nine of their best XI not available for games. For an average team that would equal disaster; the Scorchers are equal first and maybe the most fantastic thing about the squad is that they don't even need a second overseas player. They are so good, they don't need another gun; their battalion is full.
So whether or not bundling is illegal, or if the coercion has helped, there are other reasons for the Scorchers' great list.
Geography plays a huge part. Perth is further from the rest of the country. For players with families, partners, or even much-loved pets, leaving your home to live in a hotel on the other side of the country is not ideal. The Australian Cricketers' Association wants players to pick where they play, which is a luxury in modern sport, and so many players have stayed with their local team rather than chasing bigger money.
You can't discount the simple power of winning. Talk of a legacy is probably overselling it (five of that first title-winning Scorchers team no longer play for them), but they are the best T20 team in the world over the last few years, taking that crown from Chennai Super Kings. Their bowling is so good that teams can't score against them, allowing their batting just to mop up. They fit the modern finding of analytics that bowling teams win tournaments and leagues. If Johnson, Coulter-Nile, Behrendorff, Tim Bresnan and Tye are fit and available, you can't even squeeze them all in to an XI. They could play without an overseas player and they'd still be the best XI in the country.
The case of someone like Ashton Agar is interesting. Initially a great athlete with a stunning Australian debut, Agar faded away. His bowling had always looked developmental, even when he was picked with it as his specialist skill. But WA have turned him into a bowler good enough to tour with the Test side, and this year he's been unhittable in the BBL. The system out West is to take talented players and make them better. Add to that the great tactical nous and analytics work that goes into every game for the Scorchers and the coherence - the Scorchers have a year-long system, the same coaches, the same location.
For all the talk of bundling, a number of players don't actually want to leave. David Moody is the only player under 30 (other than Short) who's left the Scorchers, and they are so deep in seam bowling, they probably couldn't even promise him a replacement spot. The only top-tier players who have left over the last few years were the over-30s, like Nathan Rimmington, Brad Hogg and Craig Simmons, who made two centuries for the Scorchers in BBL03 after starting the tournament as an injury replacement.
Simmons told ESPNcricinfo he was offered a contract "six times" his Scorchers deal by the Strikers for BBL04, and he still "took a week to think about it". Simmons was plucked out of club cricket by Langer; he was fixing power lines at night at the time. "If I was 26, I probably would have stayed with the Scorchers, despite the money," he said. When Simmons left, Langer said he was "shocked and disappointed" and privately he was said to be incandescent with rage. Those who know Langer well say anger is often his first response before others cool him down. Simmons said it took Langer about a month to warm to him again.
But all of what Perth are doing comes back to Langer. Tye was a chubby club seamer and Langer turned him into an Australian and IPL player. You might want to turn your back on that for money or opportunity, but plenty of Perth players are convinced that staying is the best option.
Perhaps the success of Short in the recent IPL auction might change some minds. Had Short decided to stay in Perth, he probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to open much, if at all, with Michael Klinger, Shaun Marsh, Cameron Bancroft all in the WA squad. Ashton Turner is arguably as good as Short, and has been better for longer; Short has been front and centre for the Hurricanes, and has a huge IPL deal, while Turner went unsold.
But what this illustrates is how many Perth players are that good. A few years ago people laughed about the drinking culture out West. Now people are praising, or moaning about, their winning culture. Inside, the story is the same from nearly all the players, who feel like they have grown up together, made something special, and all the while have improved their games. Langer is a part of that, but the main part.
Langer is the Baggy Green in human form; the man who got hit on the head more than any other playing for his country; who dragged himself above far more gifted players and made the opening position his own in one of the best teams of all times. Like a leader of the Aussie battler resistance, he has formed a cult-like following in WA.
It was Langer who made hungover players run up and down an Adelaide hill to start this great era of WA cricket, got Short to lose weight, turned Turner into a hot IPL prospect, and has got the best out of the Marsh brothers.
If you are a young player right now in WA, not only are you in awe of Langer the WA legend, you are also dealing with the Australian coach-in-waiting. Langer speaks about cricket like he's a Samurai protecting a village from an invading army. He is the person who camera crews go to when they want the 'Test cricket is everything' speech. Recently when speaking to ABC, Langer was asked why he displayed the book The No Asshole Rule so prominently. "It is a reminder that we don't want knobs in our organisation," he replied, bluntly.
That policy, getting players to pledge allegiance to the entire WA set-up, not just the Scorchers, is all part of Langer's battle plan. He has built an incredible franchise team, except it's not a franchise team so much as a state squad playing as a franchise team.
Opposition franchises are equal parts jealous and frustrated. They're quick to acknowledge the good things the Scorchers are doing, while also lamenting that it is virtually impossible at their clubs. The frustration is at its worst in Melbourne and Sydney where it is practically impossible to copy the method. Their Shield sides are torn apart between the two franchises, even before you factor in opposition franchises are still trying to sign their best players.
That only one of four Sydney or Melbourne teams made the finals won't bother Scorchers fans, and neither should it. Western Australia have often been a forgotten team in the cricket heartland of Sydney and Melbourne's hallways of power. WA didn't even join the Sheffield Shield until after World War II. And while cricket in Australia has changed since then, being in Melbourne or Sydney is still an advantage. There is no state outside NSW that doesn't complain that all Australian players are from NSW, and their local boys can't get a look in. So there will be few tears shed for poor Melbourne and Sydney teams from fans over in the West.
In her interview with the Herald Sun McConnie, the head of the BBL, was asked if it was too hard for two-team cities to compete? "There are pros and cons," she said. "Definitely, it ebbs and flows and sometimes we hear about the benefits of being a two-team town. Melbourne and Sydney have much bigger markets versus competing with a Perth, which has a much smaller market. I think it all nets out in the end."
It hasn't netted out at all yet. In six BBL seasons so far four winners have been from single-team cities. That could be luck, it could be random, but close followers of the BBL don't think it is. This year, unless the Renegades pull off two miraculous upset victories, it will be a single-team city (any of first-ranked Perth, second-ranked Adelaide or fourth-ranked Hobart) that will win it.
In Melbourne, the second biggest TV market, crowds and TV ratings are down. "We haven't done a team-by-team or game-by-game analysis and won't until post-season, but the Victorian market is about 3% down," a CA official said. Privately CA worry about the Stars - Melbourne's biggest team - struggling so much, which has affected the ratings. The Sixers - Sydney's biggest side - also have poor crowds at their games.
Last season CA officials didn't seem worried at all by Perth's stranglehold. This year, privately, some have wondered if the gap is widening and whether that will hit the marketability and TV ratings.
It might end naturally. Teams like the Stars and Sixers might find other ways to get talent. The Scorchers could end up victims of their own success, and like other top sporting teams, see their best players tempted by money offered elsewhere. The Perth Scorchers list is the most remarkable squad in T20 cricket and the real question now is how long will they be able to keep it?