March 30, 2015

Fifty-over cricket, I was wrong

This World Cup gave us driven, vibrant, electric ODI cricket, played at the limit of current ability, and it was magnificent

In an increasingly batsman-dominated game, the spark the bowlers brought was heartwarming © Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

It is the first over of the World Cup final, the biggest game of your life. You are playing your greatest enemy on a ground where they never seem to lose. You are facing a man bowling very accurate, late-swinging yorkers at more than 90mph from left-arm over the wicket. There are 93,000 people watching you do it, and a few million more on television, on the radio and online. All of those ephemeral thoughts about the meaning of the occasion to you, your family, your team and your country must be dealt with.

What do you do next?

Well if you're Brendon McCullum, you run down the wicket and try and batter the ball into next week, or judging by the blur of bat speed, maybe even next month.

No retreat, no surrender.

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Cut back eight years. The 2007 World Cup in the West Indies lasts from March 13 to April 28 and ends in darkness and farce. US$301 million is spent on stadium building and reconstructions. An average of 8500 people attend each group game. Pakistan's coach Bob Woolmer dies a day after his side has lost to Ireland. India are eliminated after playing three matches. As the final between Australia and Sri Lanka grinds to a halt in bad light, Australia celebrate their win while the umpires insist that the game is only suspended, not complete. Following the tournament the ICC distributes $239m of surplus revenue to its members.

"How much longer can this go on?" you wonder.

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Cut forward five months. The first ICC World T20 tournament runs September 11-24. Yuvraj Singh hits six sixes against England. India beat Pakistan in the final to become the inaugural champions. The first season of the IPL begins seven months later. Brendon McCullum scores 158 from 73 deliveries for Kolkata Knight Riders against Royal Challengers Bangalore in the first match.

"Now," you think. "Here is the futureā€¦"

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Cut forward four years. MS Dhoni fires the ball deep into the Mumbai night to win World Cup 2011 for India. Eleven months later, in Dhaka, Sachin Tendulkar makes his 100th international century, in an ODI against Bangladesh, and two days later he plays what will be his final match in the format, later retiring as the highest run scorer of all time. It feels like the end of something, the completion of a cycle that began in 1983.

"This," you think, "could be the perfect moment to finish."

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Yes, 50-over cricket, by 2011, you felt worn out. You had gone through your natural life cycle of growth, boom and bust. All of your records had been set. There was a new, futuristic format to play. You had become ominously predictable. The players understood every nuance and variation you could throw at them. Why not just leave it here and move on, before it all got too messy and spoiled the memories we had? After all, Tendulkar's last match was ODI number 3263. There have been a thousand more ODIs than Tests, and you only started in 1971.

You seemed to exist for commercial expedience as much as anything else. Quite often the major argument for you seemed to be, "there are more ad slots than in a T20 game", or, "the calendar is set for the next four years".

I realise I was probably in a minority thinking that way, but the minority wasn't small, and its arguments were gaining traction. During the first decade and a half of the new century, Test cricket kicked forwards into a new era in terms of how it was played. We had T20 to heighten and concentrate the kind of action that had set ODI cricket apart, and it fulfilled not only the on-pitch brief but the off-pitch requirements too: T20 was reshaping the finances of the game.

You still seemed trapped in your thinking, your format impervious to the constant tinkering we designed to bring back the thrill.

In 2011, it felt as if ODI cricket had come a full circle, 40 years on from inception © Getty Images

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And then you did this.

World Cup 2015 was perfect in its moment. There were few close games, and perhaps only one that you could call a classic, but all of a sudden the clouds had parted and the sun shone on a brave new world, filled with power and beauty. The players were fearless, their horizons extended. What was really renewed was the sense of what was possible. McCullum, de Villiers, Gayle, Maxwell, Guptill - just the names are enough. Those innings, and others, live on in the mind.

And in a game necessarily loaded towards batsmen, the tournament was won by bowlers. Here was more bravery, more extremism, showing itself in Imran Tahir's looping googly bowled slowly under fire, or Wahab Riaz trying to bounce Australia out against impossible odds, or Mitchell Starc and Trent Boult bringing the yorker back to prominence as a searing, guided missile that wrecked dreams along with zing bails.

You gave us electric, driven cricket, played at the limit of current ability, and it was magnificent. We can debate long and hard why it has happened, but it has.

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The mindset of players may have shifted, but so has that of spectators. McCullum tried to whack the hell out of Starc in the first over of the final and lost his off stump. No one will be too outraged about it, because we understand that this is now what it takes. Fifty-over cricket is alive again, and it is alive with risk and reward. It is alive with this new edge and new danger.

It didn't work out for Brendon at Melbourne, but it has before and it will again.

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Fifty-over cricket, I was wrong. Forgive me. That was bloody wonderful. Let's do it all again. I don't know how we resolve the problem of the calendar, but we will. Let's make sure that the Associates are with us. Let's try and convince England to let go of the past and join in.

Brendon M, Brendan T, Mitch, Mitch, AB, Shapoor, King Kumar, Wahab, everyone - it's been a blast.

Sometimes it's great to be wrong.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman