As the Big Bash grapples with what could be its slowest scoring season to date, BBL head Kim McConnie has stressed that producing top-notch pitches around the country remains the league's highest priority.
The KFC BBL has become synonymous with high scores and thrilling finishes, but more than halfway into the tournament's eighth edition, average scoring rates are presently on track to be as low as they've ever been.
After the overall run-rate reached as high as 8.37 in BBL|06, this season that mark has dropped to 7.67 (the same figure recorded in BBL02, the lowest run rate since the competition's inception) while the average first-innings score is only 153.
It flies in the face of the rapid advancements in world limited-overs cricket over the past decade, in which bigger bats, smaller boundaries and inventive batting have contributed to ever higher run-scoring benchmarks.
The lull hasn't gone unnoticed by players and coaches around the league, who have almost universally pointed to slow playing surfaces as the main problem.
"You do want to see a contest between bat and ball, but I think in general the wickets have been a little more bowler-friendly this year than years gone by," said Perth Scorchers star Ashton Turner.
Melbourne Stars batter Ben Dunk added: "Bowlers are exploiting those conditions… It comes back to what the fans really want. Do they want high-scoring games, or are they happy for grinds around that 120-run mark? I know what I prefer watching."
The trend hasn't escaped the attention of McConnie either, who said generating wickets conducive to big scores is one of the BBL’s most pressing concerns.
"What it (lower scoring rates) has reinforced to us is the importance of the pitch," McConnie told cricket.com.au.
"The BBL is about fun, family entertainment, however you can never overlook the quality of the cricket.
"I think we actually do a really good job on the entertainment front – we'll continue to challenge ourselves, but I think we do a really good job there.
"(But) it is a different world having a full home-and-away season … we're now starting to see the other tension points come to life."
McConnie says the expansion of the season from 40 games to 59 this summer has contributed to the slow-down, with a host of newer venues being used and an increased amount of traffic on existing grounds.
The Gold Coast has hosted three games in its first season as a BBL ground, Geelong, Launceston, Alice Springs and Canberra are in their second seasons, Optus Stadium is in its first full season overall as a cricket venue, while regional Victorian town Moe will host a game later this month.
McConnie also conceded it had been a mistake to schedule a double-header on December 29 at Marvel Stadium, with a WBBL game being held before a men’s match that saw the Renegades men manage just 9-99 from 20 overs in reply to the Sixers 7-132.
"In hindsight we never should have played a WBBL double-header before that game," said McConnie, who was appointed as head of the BBL and WBBL competitions in October 2017.
"It was just too much for (the pitch) given the weather and the fact the roof had been closed.
"Every new venue discussion or every new venue renewal, I think topic number one will always be, 'what are we agreeing to ensure we're getting the best quality pitch for every game?'"
The Big Bash season may be well down on big bashes but Cricket Australia's head of cricket operations, Peter Roach, says pitches are only one factor among many contributing to the scoring downturn.
Roach acknowledges there have always been challenges with non-traditional cricket venues like Melbourne's Marvel Stadium and Sydney's Spotless Stadium, as well as Perth's still-new Optus Stadium with their first full summer of cricket.
But he points to the fact that scores are also lower this season at grounds like the Gabba and Adelaide Oval, which signals there could be other influences at play.
"The fact they're both down would indicate to me it's not a wicket issue totally in isolation," Roach told cricket.com.au. "I don't think anyone would criticise any of the wickets there (at Adelaide Oval or the Gabba), they've been their usual high standard.
"I'm not saying the wickets (elsewhere) have not had an effect. Clearly there's been a few disappointing wickets, but there are other factors."
One of those is undoubtedly the quality of bowling.
A telling trend of BBL|08 has been the growing number of teams opting to seek bowlers over batters to fill one of their two overseas player slots. This season, 10 of the 19 international players (including replacements) are specialist bowlers. Last summer, there were only six.
While Tests and domestic T20s may seem poles apart, the stability of Australia's bowling attack over the course of their series against India may also have played a part. The fitness of the Test quicks has meant fringe bowlers like James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Jhye Richardson, each of whom rate in the top six for dot-ball percentage in the competition (per Opta) remained available for their clubs through most of the first half of the season.
Put together, there's a decent indication that the league's overall bowling stocks have been boosted.
On the flip-side, the instability of Australia's Test top order as well as the removal of the two best batsmen in the country (Steve Smith and David Warner) and another (Cameron Bancroft, for the Scorchers' first three games) who, at worst, would have been on the fringes of the national set-up has influenced the overall batting stocks.
"There's been lots of media reports about the quality of batting in Australia. I would suggest that if people believe that is true, then the Big Bash wouldn't be isolated – the batting wouldn't be strong in the Big Bash but weak elsewhere," Roach continued.
"It's going to have a bigger effect when two of our best batsmen are out of action. The flow-on of that the next two best batsmen get dragged away from the Big Bash up into the Australian team.
"What effect does the best batsman of a BBL team being dragged away have on run rates? For those teams (affected) I would say it's significant."
In a parallel universe where Cape Town never happened, where Smith and Warner led the Test side this summer and Bancroft was also still a fixture in the team, the BBL might also have been significantly different.
The likes of Aaron Finch, Marcus Harris and Travis Head may still be without Baggy Greens. It may not seem like two batters should affect a league-wide trend, but players of that calibre – Finch and Head rank in the upper echelon of BBL batsmen, and Harris isn’t too far behind – can easily be the difference between their teams scoring 140 and 180.
The Renegades, for example, have seen their run rate drop from 8.23 last season to 7.22 in BBL08. (Despite that, they sit second on the ladder). Playing three games on a dicey Marvel Stadium track that Renegades coach McDonald says hasn’t been at its best this season has clearly had an effect, but so too has the absence of their opening duo of Harris and Finch until recently.
"It doesn't take much to tilt it the other way," said Roach. "It only takes a (Chris) Lynn coming off, a (Brendon) McCullum coming off and all of a sudden, average scores can get to 180-200 that we've had intermittently in the past.
"We haven't had as many (runs) as we would have liked to this point but that's not to say we won't finish with as many or more than previous years."
Another factor, Roach says, is teams' lack of familiarity with some of the newer venues.
The majority of the newer grounds feature drop-in pitches and Hobart Hurricanes coach Adam Griffith suggests the nature of those wickets has also played a role in the drop.
"There’s a few exceptions, but I think you’ll find in general the grounds that have the normal cricket wickets are the grounds you get the best scores on,” Griffith told cricket.com.au.
"We’ve seen a lot of the drop-in wickets are the ones that relate to low scores and are tough to bat on and often the bowlers can get away with more in those conditions.
"Look at Blundstone Arena with us, it’s been pretty much a good batting wicket in every game we’ve played.
"We’d love to see really good batting wickets because then the really good bowlers stand up. The ones that can execute their skills really well are the ones who do well and the ones who perhaps aren’t quite up to it get found out a little bit."
The jigsaw pieces have recently begun to fall into place for batters - for teams batting first anyway; a recent five-game streak saw above average first-innings scores of 178, 168, 192, 177, 185 posted in consecutive matches. Those higher totals haven't however moved the needle a great deal in terms of the overall scoring rates, given the paltry replies by teams chasing in those matches.
Roach says CA will be closely monitoring the numbers.
"If there's a pattern here that we see forming, over one year or two years or however long, we'll look at how we can address it," he said.
"Things change over the course of a tournament – teams react, teams respond, teams find their best batting orders. Over time they might discover a batsman.
"(Renegades wicketkeeper) Sam Harper is a great example – as a replacement player he's now playing a pivotal role.
"There will be other success stories as well. Clubs will find the answer as to why their individual run rates have been lower and over time they'll work it out."