Time is ripe for an ODI league
The ongoing Champions Trophy is the seventh and last edition of this tournament, which initially started off in 1998 as a promising knockout competition to help raise funds for the global development of cricket and ultimately became a liability in the cricket calendar. Usually held every two years, the 2013 edition has instead been played after almost four years, the last being in 2009. With the rise in meaningless, yet lucrative, Twenty20 leagues throughout the world, the ICC decided that something had to give, and the scapegoat turned out to be the Champions Trophy, and probably rightly so.
The time is ripe for a meaningful one-day international league. The World Cup remains the premier 50-overs tournament, and continues to do just fine. What is harming the format is the unnecessarily high number of bilateral series being played around the world. It might be bringing in the crowds, but from a cricketing point of view, there is no meaning attached to such contests, except for a few rating points on the rankings table. In the 2013-14 season, Australia will tour India for a mind-numbing seven ODIs in November, while India will also play the same number of games against South Africa on their tour of the country later this year.
Prior to these series, a tri-nation ODI tournament involving hosts West Indies, India and Sri Lanka will be played in the Caribbean. The series was disappointingly accommodated after scrapping a two-Test series between West Indies and Sri Lanka. Similarly, two more potentially mouth-watering Test series this season (Pakistan in West Indies and South Africa in Sri Lanka) were scrapped, while the limited-overs legs were kept as per schedule.
I was of the opinion earlier that the 2019 World Cup was the last we would see of ODI cricket. But then I realised that without the 50-overs format, the progress of promising Associate nations would be thwarted, for it is this format, and not T20, which will provide a stepping stone for emerging nations who aim for Test status. Following Ireland's recent heart-warming performances in the short ODI series against Pakistan, I really felt the need for a league system in ODI cricket. The World Cup can remain as it is, but pointless bilateral series have to go. To be honest, watching an India v Sri Lanka ODI match is no longer a source of excitement, rather it is just a waste of time. Unfortunately, the cricketing powers that be think otherwise.
The league system that I am suggesting can consist of two divisions of eleven teams each, with Division 1 having the 10 Full Members and Ireland, while Division 2 can have 11 emerging Associate and Affiliate nations, based on their performances in the World Cricket League. The league can run from June to March every season, with each team playing every other team twice, once home and once away. In this way, each team will play 20 ODIs each season, and there will be no issue of one team playing more games than others. Also, with the meaning of a league standing attached to every game, fans can be expected to be hooked onto the games, which can be played on any day of the week.
It means a total of 110 matches, with 4-5 games every week, of course whenever the teams are not involved in Test cricket. Logistics can also easily be taken care of, for teams will get enough time to play Test series without the pressures of bilateral series; and, at the same time, the ODI league matches can be scheduled in the respective home seasons.
In a World Cup year, the league can be shortened or tweaked in order to maintain the relevance of the tournament. Otherwise, every March will see the table-topper of the league be crowned as the champions for that season. The format will be similar to football's highly successful English Premier League, where there is a champion every year and it keeps the audiences interested for the full length of the competition.
Every season, two teams from Division 1 will be relegated while two from Division 2 will be promoted. This will add to the excitement and also give the weaker nations a chance to play a substantial number of games against top opposition. To give an example, England can finish their ten home internationals during the four-month period between June and September, leaving enough room for them to play their ten away games any time till March. Similarly, a team like India can play in countries such as England, Ireland and Sri Lanka early in the season before moving on to their home leg.
In this manner, a team will play twenty ODIs every season - nothing more and nothing less - since bilateral series for each of the teams will only be restricted to Test cricket, and at the most five Twenty20 internationals every year. Thus, a team can easily play around a minimum of 12 to 14 Test matches in a season without any overlap with the ODI League. Having said that, the scheduling must be done meticulously by the ICC with the cooperation of and in coordination with all the boards, not like the current Future Tours Programme, which appears to only fill the coffers of the top cricketing nations.
The league divisions can also double up as the World Cup qualifiers - with ample scope for the Associates to qualify for the quadrennial event - which will further raise the relevance of the tournament. A well-contested country v country championship with a points table is what ODI cricket needs at the moment. Consequently, 50-overs cricket will be back in the public consciousness and hopefully in better health.
What will really be needed is public support and a genuine keenness of the administrators to ensure the sustainability of the competition. If that is sorted, there is no reason why an ODI league cannot be a success.
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