Martyn Corrin | 10:25pm gmt 16 Sep 2009
Australia and South Africa are seen here contesting a one-day international, but will that become a rare occurance in the near future?
Too many cricket-related stories seem to start, "ah, back in 2005," but I won't apologise, a little tale I'm about to tell you stems from that vintage year. I was playing some darts (well, trying to) with a friend on an early summer afternoon, in a local pub. On the TV was some one-day cricket, England were facing Australia - I must confess that I don't remember which exact match it was (which probably means that the Aussies were victorious) but as a series it got a lot of attention in the media and with the public. My friend, not exactly a cricket fan, said to me, "I usually prefer the one-day games, but when it's the Ashes, it's a bit like when England play a few friendlies in footy before the World Cup, isn't it?"
It is a statement which has been coming back to me a fair bit over the past couple of weeks as England and Australia have played out some turgid one day internationals. Australia have been dominant without being the brilliant side of the past, but the main opinion resonating from within cricketing circles is that it was foolish scheduling to play the Tests first. Coming back to my friend's analogy, imagine if the England football team went and played a couple of friendlies in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup. Nobody would give two hoots!
It is therefore tempting to think that all the calls for changes to the one-day game that we have heard in recent weeks are predominantly caused by questionable scheduling. But then I think back to the CB series in Australia in 2006-07. Although England won that series they were atrocious for the majority of it and there was no such apparent backlash against the one-day game, even though it had immediately followed an Ashes series and was longer than the one currently taking place in England.
So what has changed in this time? Well the first thing is very obvious; although Twenty20 was around back in early 2007, we were yet to see the first World Championship and the IPL did not exist. It was gathering momentum but was still a junior format that the cricketing world hadn't fully decided whether or not to adopt. A couple of months later, one of the best one-day sides of all-time (Australia, in case you hadn't figured that out) won the Cricket World Cup in the West Indies, a tournament which may in future years be regarded as synonymous with the decline of the fifty over game. Yes, Australia played some of the most fantastic cricket we have ever seen in the format in that tournament, but the criticisms of it have been covered extensively in the cricketing press; it was too long, it was poorly staged, the crowds didn't care, I could go on, but you've read it all before. And yes, this tournament has been followed by two successful Twenty20 tournaments. In these, the cricket had people interested and the competitions were concise; short enough for the audience to want more.
In between the Twenty20 tournaments held in South Africa in 2007 and England earlier this year, there was supposed to be a Champions Trophy staged in Pakistan last October. It certainly has its critics, but when staged in India in 2006 it was widely regarded as a success; a similarly interesting competition last autumn might have reminded cricket fans why they once loved one-day cricket. Alas, the sad situation in Pakistan meant that it couldn't be played, and so we had two successive Twenty20 tournaments with no chance for the fifty over game to take centre stage.
Domestically, one-day cricket continues to be played, although not necessarily over fifty overs. 2010 will see forty over cricket played as the sole List A format in England, whilst South Africa play 45 overs in their domestic competition. One suggestion that has been gathering a little bit of momentum is that, after the 2015 World Cup, the international game should follow suit and shave five or ten overs off per innings; in short, make one-day internationals a little bit more like Twenty20.
What is the point, though, you have to ask? The main problem one-day cricket seems to have is that it finds itself stuck in a chasm between the traditional long-game, and the hip and happening world of Twenty20. One-day cricket takes what your average viewer would find to be the worst aspects of either game, and combines them. The middle overs of a one-day international are much maligned because of the way the field is set back and the scoring contained. Of course, we occasionally get periods that are just as dull in Test cricket, like the scorefests between India and Pakistan in early 2006, or if you want a more recent example, the final session at Edgbaston in the Ashes when the game was clearly gone and Ravi Bopara bowled at Michael Clarke and Marcus North. Any sport, however much its fans love it, will have uninteresting moments and games, but one-day internationals seem to have fifteen overs in each innings that people who otherwise call themselves cricket tragics dread. It is why some are keen to suggest shortening the format, because by shortening the format you reduce the dead overs.
One can't help but think, however, that if there is a problem you shouldn't just think, "let's make it shorter and then it'll be boring for less time." Why not eliminate the reason why such periods exist altogether? The slips are generally available as a scoring area in Twenty20, but batsmen are less keen to take such options than in the fifty over game because they have less time to score their runs and therefore won't settle for an easy two behind the wicket on the offside. Cricket fans decry the lack of balance between bat and ball in all formats of the game so why not change the amount of time that fielding restrictions are in place for a one-day game? Why not have fielding restrictions in place the whole time? We would see better bowling and cricket that requires a little bit more thought from the batsmen, cricket that could potentially be more exciting. Run rates might well go up, but it is likely that so would the figure in the wicket column.
Of course, reducing the length of one-day games isn't the only suggestion being thrown about. Another is to split the innings; have each side bat twice but split their fifty overs into two lots of 25 - but if you are out in the first innings, you don't come out and start again in the second. It is perhaps not the worst idea in the world, but would it really be successful? One of the purposes of limited overs cricket should be that it appeals to the general public in a way which Test cricket cannot. Cricket is already a game which the average viewer finds complex, and having batsmen stop their innings to let the other team have a go, before starting again later would likely seem somewhat questionable to somebody flicking through their sports channels of an evening.
There is also a minority that would like to see one-day internationals increased
in length. In these days of slow over rates it is quite something that we manage to see 100 overs on a regular basis, so upping this by ten or twenty would be incredibly difficult, and grounds would likely need lights to stage such a game. Even if we ignore the logistical problems, though, I have to ask, what is the point? If moving to forty overs is pointless because it is just making the game more like Twenty20, then isn't making the game longer just trying to be more like Test cricket?
Therein, for me, lies one-day cricket's problem. It co-existed with the Test game for thirty years because cricket could support two formats, but it now increasingly finds itself fighting for something that isn't really there. Those who want to see batsmen build an innings and bowlers try and out-think them will instinctively turn to the Test game, not the one-day game. Those who want to watch batsmen hitting sixes and bowlers bowling all sorts of yorkers and variations will tune in to Twenty20. Of course, one-day cricket still has its fans but it sits in an awkward halfway house. Purists will always prefer Tests and the public will lean towards the brash world of Twenty20. One-day cricket can reinvent itself until the cows come home but I imagine it will all be in vein.