Right for the wrong reasons
The English counties voted this week to scrap the 50-over and retain a 40-over competition from next year, and were quite open that the decision was made on the financial grounds that 40-over cricket gets better gates than 50-over.
This may not be because 40-over cricket is more appealing than 50-over: the Pro40 is mostly played in July and August and the 50-over Friends Provident mainly in May and June. For Pro40, normal dress is shirtsleeves but for the FP it's three layers, at least one of them waterproof; the Pro40 is in school holiday time and the FP is largely played on midweek days when kids are at school and dad is at work. Swap them over, and maybe 50-over would be more popular than 40. I doubt it, however. A 40-over game is a longish afternoon out, whereas a 50-over game takes up the whole day.
Chief selector Geoff Miller and Paul Collingwood, pro tem one-day captain, are saying that is very bad from a cricketing point of view because we ought to be playing domestic one-day cricket that exactly mirrors the international form in order to prepare future England ODI players.
But, if playing the same length game is so essential, should not Test cricket's training ground, the county championship, be a five-day rather than a four-day competition?
Test matches expanded over time from three days to four and then to five because top-class batsmen would not obligingly surrender their wickets in time for games to be resolved. And all the batsmen in Test cricket, just about, are top-class. Domestic teams do not in general have line-ups consisting entirely of top-class players. They have some pretty average players mixed in with the two or three who might catch a national selector's eye. Give them five days to play their games and they will usually be over in four. It therefore makes sense to schedule it as four-day from the outset.
Playing 50-over cricket domestically in England does not do anything to train people for the international 50-over game. In fact, far from giving people experience of tactical situations they will encounter in the ODI arena, it gives them all sorts of incentives to play very differently.
An ODI team typically has five top-class batsmen and two lower-order power hitters. Between them, they can play aggressively and usually last the fifty overs. A county team, on the other hand, has three pretty good batsmen and two average ones, a big hitter and someone who is really a big misser. If the good batsmen play the way they could if they were surrounded by other good players, it's very likely that their team will be all out in forty because the lesser lights can't keep up. 35 overs to go and only two decent batsmen left is a position that you rarely encounter in an ODI but is not uncommon in county 50-over cricket. So the good batsmen learn to play more conservatively, and we wonder why we can't find anyone who is convincing in ODI Powerplay overs when nobody plays that way domestically because it would be stupid cricket if they did.
Playing domestic games which are shorter than their international equivalents compensates for the lower standard of player. It is no coincidence that South Africa play 45-over games at home and are the most consistently successful 50-over ODI side year in year out – even if they choke in World Cups.
Though the counties made their decision on commercial grounds, they have inadvertently stumbled on the best thing they could do for the England ODI team.