Let's hope the World Cup doesn't kill ODIs
I know we are all supposed to be terribly excited about the World Cup, but I am having some difficulty summoning up the enthusiasm. Partly, of course, because the injury to Eoin Morgan makes it highly unlikely that my team will get past the quarter-finals, but I think mostly because of the interminable time it will take to reach that stage.
One of the advantages claimed for the limited-over formats over Test cricket is that at least there is always a winner and a loser (unless there is a washout), but surely that is only an advantage if the result actually matters? The 2011 World Cup format means that we face five weeks of matches in which it largely doesn't. Unless one of the eight seeds has a horrible run and one of Ireland, Zimbabwe or (most likely) Bangladesh has a very good one, we already know who will be in the quarter-finals. This does not augur well for drama: it's just about certain that by the time we get to the group match between Sri Lanka and Australia in three weeks time, for instance, there will only be bragging rights at stake.
I understand the commercial imperative of making sure that India cannot repeat their embarrassment of getting knocked out as early as they did last time with the consequent disastrous effect on global viewing figures, but it means that we are going to need some really scintillating cricket if we are not all to be sound asleep by the time the quarter-finals loom into view.
And I'm not very optimistic that there will be very much, I'm afraid. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Africa have at least three players each who can light up a 50-over game, England and West Indies have Kevin Pietersen and Chris Gayle, neither of whom are reliable entertainers these days, Australia and New Zealand have a bunch of efficient players with little magic about them, and Bangladesh have Tamim Iqbal. (I haven't mentioned any bowlers because the history of 50-over cricket in South Asia suggests that they will mostly range from fairly expensive to cannon-fodder on pitches which will give them too little to work with to even up the contest between bat and ball.)
And that means that there are a lot of matches which either don't involve the entertainers or feature them playing against teams which will probably lose and are unlikely to afford them the opportunity to soar.
It's a great pity, because the likely consequence is that the 50-over format will end up looking totally redundant as a form of cricket entertainment. Now, I'm not a great drum-banger for 50-over cricket – I prefer the T20 and Test forms – but I've come to realise that I would miss it if it disappeared.
There is a certain magic about a batsman reaching three figures ingrained into cricket's DNA. The lower foothills of the Century Mountains are conquerable by plenty of 50-over climbers, whereas only the amazing (even if only for a day) can reach those heights in T20. 60 or 70 off 38 T20 balls is spectacular but it just doesn't have the enduring cachet of the ton. The limitation of overs per bowler means there is much less scope for the kind of hair-raising devastation a Test bowler can wreak, but it's not that uncommon for one bowler to produce ten brilliant overs and dominate a match, at least when the pitch has a bit of juice in it.
Where 50-over cricket really scores over T20 is that there is a fair chance of pendulum swings of fortune. There is time to rein back a side which gets to 84-0 in 10 overs, and time to recover even from 33-4. As with tons, it is just about possible for heroic match-turning narratives to occur in T20, but they are so rare as not to be worth hoping for.
These are pleasures worth preserving. I can only hope that the marathon upon which we are about to embark won't entirely kill off any desire to bring them to an end.