If 50-over cricket is dying, maybe it needs to be put on a pedestal

August 14, 2022

Cricket's calendar is fast approaching breaking point. ODI cricket has no chance, on the face of it

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One-day international cricket changed the game, or at least Kerry Packer's commercialised version of it did. We loved the 60/55/50-over stuff because it felt like cricket as we knew it: bowlers trying to get batters out with slips in place and some of the batters guarding their wicket as if a life depended upon it, before a late charge in the death overs against yorkers and long half-volleys delivered to deep and straight-set fields.

In the 1979 World Cup final, chasing 287 against West Indies, Mike Brearley and Geoff Boycott put on 129 for the first wicket in 38 overs - Brearley 64 from 130 balls; Boycott 57 from 105 - which was rather admirable in its way but at the same time pretty daft. It would be inconceivable now. Their partnership left the others to cobble 158 from the remaining 22 overs, a rate seen as close to impossible then and, given the quality of the West Indies attack - Holding, Roberts, Garner and Croft - hardly a cinch even if approached with today's mindset and wild-at-heart strokeplay. As it was, Graham Gooch threw his bat at the ball for 30-odd and the rest - Gower, Botham et al - perished in a flurry that saw England lose eight wickets for 11 runs.

That was really the last of the traditional version. In the early 1980s the Benson and Hedges Cups in Australia and South Africa were the precursor to a more glamorous, entertainment-driven spectacle that drew the crowds back to cricket in unimaginable numbers. Put simply, Packer sharpened everyone up and for the first time in its long history, cricket was seen as a product and the players its best advertisement.

Add and subtract as many multiples to and from that as you like and you begin to get to where we are today. The IPL is, after the NFL in the United States, the second-richest sports tournament in the world on a per-game valuation; its players are among the beneficiaries. The IPL franchises are spreading their wings into other markets and their marquee players are going with them. There has been talk of more than US$3 million a year for the best to attach themselves to a single franchise and globetrot with abandon.

Now past the stage of marginalisation, 50-over cricket is in freefall. The players are off it - witness Moeen Ali and R Ashwin with coruscating thoughts of late, along with Ben Stokes' pulling out of ODIs altogether - and the format is overwhelmed by the high-speed nature of global T20 franchise tournaments.

South Africa and Australia pulled the plug on their three-match ODI series scheduled for next January so that the new South African T20 league and the Big Bash could hold the back pages through January next year.

The UAE did remarkably well to persuade the ICC that a start-up of its own could occupy the January space too. That's three high-profile T20 tournaments in different parts of the world during the same month, two of which boast private ownership of teams. Wow! But there is only so much cash to go around, and right now, whatever falls into grateful pockets needs pumping back into the environments that produce the best cricketers.

It is a bewildering state of affairs and in danger of getting out of hand. ODI cricket as we know it has no chance.

There are only two ways for the ODI game to still ride the wave. The first is to drop bilateral T20 cricket altogether, which won't happen, although it is in surfeit and could do with an occasional breather. This would create space for Test cricket and a streamlined, or modified, version of ODIs instead. However, such is the staggering appetite - some might say greed - out there, the certainty is that the space would be filled by more franchise cricket in the T20 format.

The other is to switch tactic and drop all bilateral ODIs, and only play 50-over international cricket on special occasions, at World Cups and, if the ICC insists upon it, in the Champions Trophy. Make something scarce and demand often increases.

At the moment the World Cup Super League, a decent idea to bring context to bilateral ODIs, comprises 13 nations, of which the top seven automatically qualify, along with the hosts, for the World Cup in India in 2023. At present England are top of the table. But, and it's a big but, not everyone plays everyone else. Each team plays eight nations rather than 12, in four home and four away series. Neither of England's recent ODI series against India and South Africa were part of the Super League (nor, oddly, was South Africa's three-match series win at home against India earlier in the year). Go figure. The Super League decides qualification and seeding for the four-year-cycled World Cup, so it has merit on two counts, but it is flawed and ignored by all but diehard cricket lovers - who watch just about everything anyway.

Which is why the Super League is on the way out after the 2023 World Cup: there is nothing "emerging market" about ODI cricket and so something dramatic has to happen to reverse the decline in interest and value. The best of the options is not to offer it at all at international level, outside of those two major tournaments. At least the World Cup would feel a bit different - unique, in fact - and, who knows, as each year passes and the fans overdose on T20, it might occur to them that the lowest common denominator does not necessarily lead to utopia for bat and ball.

If nothing else, 50-over cricket provides an important bridge between the extremities of Test and T20 cricket - never mind the Hundred and T10 - and from it comes a more substantial and sustainable cricketer, rather than one trained only in the short arts of 135 strike rates and four-over spells. Fifty-over cricket needs to be put on a pedestal and, therefore, to become eagerly awaited.

This way, the ICC can clear its conscience and take the lead in rationing formats through the message of its annual tournament. The four-year cycle would feature the World Test Championship final (once, not twice), T20 World Cup, 50-over World Cup, and then, in the gap year, either a gap (eureka!) or, if necessary, a competition to satisfy global demand. A short, sharp "Champions League", like there was in the early part of the last decade, played in late September by the teams that win their respective T20 competitions - though the conflict of player allegiance is difficult to unravel - or the old Champions Trophy as we knew it, the one that had a feel-good factor about it, like when Pakistan beat India at The Oval in London with such a thrilling performance.

Perhaps the much maligned ECB saw all this coming and committed to the Hundred as their own baby and all the collateral that comes with it. Soon enough, it will create a window for the tournament and take it to market, where private investors will lap at their first move into the English cricket space. This will take the heat out of the counties' ongoing reliance on broadcast income - they are the sole beneficiaries of the Hundred's net profit - and may even, down the track, open up the idea of supporting four-day cricket, which is presently the main subject of Andrew Strauss' high-performance review.

These words, of course, send a shiver through the veins of those on the other side of English cricket's culture war, as it was termed in last week's Sunday Times. Martin Bicknell, the former England bowler and now a Surrey committee man, tweeted "[…] Sky and the BBC chuck millions into a tournament we don't need or like… we need proper people in charge." Which was probably a shout out for his out-going chairman, Richard Thompson, who becomes the new ECB chair at the start of next month.

He's not right that we don't like it; plenty of us love it. Down the track, he will be surprised by how much we need it to safeguard our place at the head of the table in the three months between June and September, when England was once the only place to be if cricket was your thing. While the T20 franchise train runs faster and faster, so the players will be dragged away from the existing domestic (hate that word) competitions.

England needs its own pulling power, something different and attractive that pays well enough to keep them at home. The Hundred is it. The players dig the competition's racy cut and thrust, its subtle and nuanced points of tactical difference, and its noise. The investors will, too, because a hard truth is that bums on seats and eyeballs to the screen are the key measure of their interest.

The problem, though, is the way in which both county cricket and the T20 Blast have been compromised by the Hundred's dominant positioning in the English summer. The County Championship has shut up shop for August and the Blast is starved of marketing resource as the ECB throws all its best toys in with the new baby. Bicknell would doubtless say scaling up the Blast would have done the same job as the Hundred but that is not so. There is no way that 18 county teams could have attracted 18 private investors, nor would those counties want outside influence in their affairs. As a further aside, it is a moot point whether or not there are enough quality overseas players available to go round that many teams.

Franchise cricket is the zeitgeist. Whether by the law of unintended consequences or not, England has its place in the order of things ready to go.

But the messaging isn't good. The ECB must use income from the Hundred for a more holistic approach to the handouts and tell us about them loud and clear. For all the money that pours into the English game, considerably more is needed for investment into pathways, development and talent.

To win hearts, the profits should be ring-fenced for, a) the recruitment and development of young cricketers and the organisations that save the ECB's face by running hugely expensive initiatives and programmes through their charitable status, b) the connection with and the funding of cricket in Asian communities, and c) the fastest growing sport of all, women's cricket.

Does the ECB have a long-term plan? Does the ICC, for that matter? How random and potentially dangerous is the speed of all this change? Where will cricket be in five years, never mind ten? Who will accept responsibility for the game's pastoral care and ensure that the accelerating train doesn't career off the track? This all needs careful thought, common ground, sufficient windows, and a kinder attitude towards one another. There is a lot of money out there and a lot of cricket, most of it very good. This is not a depressed time for the game, far from it, but regulation of a good thing is urgently required because overkill is inevitable.

Michael Atherton wrote recently that a tipping point had been reached, and Stokes has made it clear that too much cricket will force the players into making choices that won't please everyone. Only with the sharpest mind and an unconditional passion for the game can the solutions be found. –Cricinfo



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