Stop flogging a groggy horse
Four Things We Have Learned From Phase One of England's Distended ODI Summer 1. England are a very good side in home conditions, particularly when fielding five Test-class bowlers.
2. West Indies are not a very good side in English conditions, particularly when England field five Test-class bowlers. They were, admittedly, not helped by Chris Gayle being given out maybe leg before wicket (and, in the DRS era, "mlbw" should be officially recorded in the scorebooks, as well as "plbw" [probably lbw [and "dlbwtwbifkmonq" [definitely lbw, that was bang in front, knocking middle out, no question]). However, as in the Test matches, they have shown themselves flawed in all departments of the game.
3. One-sided ODIs are not much fun.
4. We cannot learn many things from one-side ODIs.
Four Ways to Enliven the 50-Over Format 1. Stop trying to enliven the 50-over format. The ODI game did probably need a little surgery to keep it attractive, but years of attempted beautifications have left it looking like the Frankenstein's Zsa Zsa Gabor of cricket formats. The latest tinkerings - attempting to add greater flexibility to when Powerplays are taken by restricting when Powerplays can be taken, for example ‒ may have been entertainingly counter-intuitive, but have damaged the game.
2. For a format that frets so much about its often featureless middle-over sludge, 50-over cricket has done little to encourage wicket-taking bowling. The initial fielding restrictions ‒ a maximum of two men out, a minimum of two men catching ‒ should apply, as they used to, for the first 15 overs, giving top-order batsmen time to play themselves in, and then attack with the field still up. Currently, fielding teams can ‒ and, by the immutable law of sporting caution, always do ‒ go on the defensive after ten overs.
The batting Powerplay, which was turning into a reasonably interesting tactical gambit before it was unceremoniously whacked on the head by the authorities and plonked immovably in the 36-40 slot, should revert to being taken anywhere in the remainder of the innings, and should ideally have the same restrictions, or at the very least demand one man catching as well as the current maximum of three outside the 30-yard circle. Alternatively, after the first 15 overs, only allow four men outside the circle for the rest of the innings. Or allow two outside in the first 15 overs, three from 16 to 25, four from 26 to 35, and five in the final 15. And demand one man catching at all times. Or six fielders catching and no one outside the circle, which now becomes the boundary. Or play ODIs over five days with two unrestricted innings per team, with players dressed in white using a red ball. Or introduce a Powerplay in which the batting captain skippers the fielding team for five overs (this could prove the single greatest innovation in cricket's history). Or give fielding captains a "joker", which they can play at the fall of any wicket, and which gives them the power to choose which of the batting team has to come in to bat next. Or involve the crowd in umpiring decisions by allowing them to adjudicate on all DRS referrals.
3. Stop flogging an already groggy-looking horse. Almost all cricket pundits advocate playing fewer ODIs. However, none of those pundits works in the accounts department of a cricketing authority, so their views are easily ignored. And none of those pundits only gets to see international cricket on the rare occasions that the remorseless juggernaut of ODIs visits their town. But the point basically stands. International sport should have meaning and context, importance, and a degree of rarity. However, cricket administrators are human beings, and the last 10,000-or-so years of history suggest that human beings are financial Labradors, unable to say "enough".
4. Make sure ODI series have an element of this meaning and context by doing one or both of the following: where possible (i.e. almost always), play ODI series as a curtain-raiser to a Test series; and rather than having mathematically obscure rankings, make each series part of some form of world league. Series should be three matches played over a week, or five matches played over two weekends. Teams would win two points for winning a match, with a bonus for winning a series. There could be a playoff at the end of each one- or two-year cycle, or just a big shiny trophy, some commemorative spangly capes and a photo opportunity with an Elvis impersonator for the winners.
It might be a bit awkward to assimilate this into the schedule, and the league would have to be done on a points-per-game basis, but it is probably not impossible. Cricket, uniquely, has three different formats, offering different challenges and attractions. It must choose whether to help them co-exist or allow them to compete with each other. Is it one sport or three?
One Alternative Format Being Launched on Sunday At the opposite end of the attention-span scale to the voracious T20 megabeast is Loughborough University Staff Cricket Club's 150-hour cricket marathon, which begins on Sunday the 24th and ends on Friday the 30th June, and will raise money for the Harley Staples Cancer Trust. The two teams will each bat for four hours at a time, and the players "will aim to sleep when their own team is batting" ‒ an old Yorkshire strategy dating back to the Boycott days.
This is a match that should give batsmen ample chance to play themselves in and play "proper cricket", and in case anyone doubts the competitiveness of this match, one player is being sponsored for every run that he scores. If this incentivisation scheme proves successful, it could lead to all batsmen in professional cricket being paid on a per-run basis, which could in turn lead to: (a) more run-outs, as squabbling team-mates attempt to ruin each other's lavish holiday plans; (b) batsmen celebrating wildly after being dismissed towards the end of the tax year if they are on the cusp of batting themselves into a higher tax bracket; and (c) mid-pitch barneys over who gets to use a team's one remaining DRS review. Is there a cricket fan alive who would not like to see these long-overdue developments in our sport?
Assuming a slightly throwback over-rate of 18 overs per hour, the cricket marathon will allow time for 2700 overs, three times as many as were bowled in the longest Test match in history, the famous Timeless Test of 1938-39. In that Durban Endurogrind, 681 eight-ball overs were pinged down over 12 days (including two rest days and a washout), before rain and the international shipping schedule intervened.
The match lasted longer than some Italian governments but ended in a draw ‒ England had to catch the boat back to Blighty when an agonising 42 runs short of their 696 victory target, with five wickets in hand and an in-form Les Ames at the crease and the bowlers, understandably, no longer at their freshest. Perhaps, on the long trip home to a strife-torn Europe, they slightly regretted scoring at the equivalent of just 2.24 per six-ball over, over three days of batting. With hindsight, a little squeeze on the accelerator pedal at some point on the 10th, 13th or 14th March 1939 would not have gone amiss for England's star-studded batting line-up. Perhaps opener Paul Gibb could have opened his shoulders a little earlier and hit more than the two boundaries he amassed in his seven and a half hours (and approximately 450-500 balls) at the crease. Hindsight, schmindsight. An away draw is a creditable result in anyone's Wisden, and a 1-0 series win gave the nation a major psychological boost that ultimately helped win the Second World War.
This marathon match was the final Test played by South African paceman Norman Gordon, who sent down a personal marathon of 738 balls in the game, the most ever by a fast bowler in a Test. His strike rate was a disappointing 738, as he took 1 for 256 in the match, his one scalp coming with England 611 for 3 in their second innings, a week and a half after the match had started. He may have been flagging like a hyperactive gossip at the world speed semaphore championships, but Gordon had proved his powers of perseverance, and has utilised these skills ever since in an appropriately marathonic life - he is still going strong, aged 100, Test cricket's only centenarian.
Gordon, regrettably, could not be tempted out of retirement to play in the Loughborough Cricket Marathon, but its success could herald a new age of never-ending endurance cricket, which will have the IPL quaking in its gold-encrusted boots and the cricketing authorities salivating at the prospect of a format that offers scope for at least 2700 advertisement breaks, or more if any wickets fall.
More on the Cricket Marathon, details of celebrity attendees (who will include the cult cricket-loving rock band The Inspiral Carpets), a live video feed and live score updates, and to support this extremely worthwhile cause, here. There will also be a minute's silence in memory of Tom Maynard.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer