A matter of formats
I'll bet the administrators wish they possessed a reliable crystal ball that would provide a glimpse of cricket's future. Especially when it comes to Twenty20, the shortest but suddenly most desirable form of the game.
The fans can't get enough of Twenty20, the players are starting to embrace it, and private promoters are spending millions in the hope of cashing in on the popularity of the sport's latest entertainment craze. The question the administrators would love to have answered by that crystal ball is: "Does it have a long and viable future?" If they knew the answer to that question, they would know what approach to take in regard to the 50-over game.
The traditional limited-overs game is a very valuable commodity; the showpiece World Cup drags in hundreds of millions of dollars in television rights and sponsorship money. In most countries it has underwritten Test cricket since the Kerry Packer-led revolution. However, though large crowds still attend and view the 50-over game, there is an increasing sense of disillusionment with the format, and words like "boring" and "repetitive" are regularly used to describe certain periods of the game.
There is so much 50-over cricket played, and yet so few of these games are linked in a meaningful way, that players become stale and the games take on a repetitive air. The obvious answer is to have fewer meaningless games and more matches that are linked to a prestige tournament involving only the stronger nations.
The limited-overs game has evolved in a haphazard fashion; a problem is perceived with cricket at large, and a new, shortened version of the game is immediately devised. There appears to be little thought given to how the different versions are integrated to form a viable and workable whole.
All the different forms of limited-overs cricket serve to popularise and finance cricket, but the weakness in the system is the main commodity - the players. All forms of limited-overs cricket are at their most entertaining when the best players are performing. Therefore it is the internationals who bear the brunt of the workload. And it is the nature of the game that the shorter the duration, the more the limitations of a player are exposed.
While the Kerry Packer-led revolution was great for the game, in its aftermath there was little planning, unfortunately, for the long-term future. No one formulated a plan to ensure that all layers of the game, from club to international and from limited-overs to Test, dovetailed in such a way that the players not only had a clear path to follow but also one that was sustainable.
Consequently, in this era of full professionalism, the best players are being worked to the bone. Rather than utilise one of the shorter forms of the game for the development and promotion of potential new stars, the administrators are looking to wheel out the current headliners at every opportunity. However, the game has a habit of forging its own path and private promoters tend to lead the way in this regard.
The privately run Stanford 20-20 competition in the Caribbean is genuinely trying to develop new players to help West Indies cricket move upwards. The planned Indian Cricket League originally talked about providing a similar path for young Indian cricketers but is currently looking more like a superannuation provider for ageing first-class and international players.
To properly develop a player's technique to the point where he can perform in a skillful and entertaining manner in any form of cricket, he needs time in the middle when he is young. Therefore he needs to regularly play longer forms of the game to develop into an international cricketer.
The time has come to devise a blueprint for the future; a plan for the game right from the school ground to club cricket, and on up to international level. Perhaps it's time to insert another layer, at the inter-city level, where the stars of the future can be groomed. The problem for the administrators is which form of the game to hive off to that level. This is why the administrators would dearly love to know the future of both the 20- and 50-over game.
The first Twenty20 World Championship would be the ideal time for all the participants to sit down and plan the way forward; the players, the administrators and the private promoters. And it wouldn't do any harm if there was a crystal ball sitting right in the middle of that round-table discussion.
Ashok Ganguly is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo