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Farewell then, the NatWest Challenge. You will not be missed
July 12, 2005
Farewell then, the NatWest Challenge. You will not be missed. Today's fatuous contest marks the end of an inglorious three-year experiment, the low point of an otherwise exemplary 25-year association between the sponsor and the sponsored. It started out as a vaguely serviceable concept, an opportunity for England to stretch their limited one-day experience, but this summer it has descended into a shameless ploy to stack the coffers with Anglo-Australian ticket sales.
For years, the finger was pointed at countries such as India and Pakistan for their obsession with woolly triangulars in outlandish venues such as Sharjah and Toronto. This, however, is infinitely worse - three meaningless knockabouts slapped into prime-time midsummer conditions, at three of the most venerable grounds in England. On Wednesday, Liverpool begin their defence of their European football crown, a full week and a day before the Ashes get underway. A captive audience is about to dissipate before the main event, and that is reason enough to despair of this competition.
But there is a further reason, and that is the experimentation within the experiment. It has taken just two matches, and probably even less, for the nonsensical concepts of the Supersub and the Powerplay to be exposed in all their faux-American ignominy. The concept was floated at the ICC executive meeting at the end of June, and parachuted straight into action without so much as a trial run in a county game. In theory, we are expected to put up with the new regulations for a further 10 months. In practice, they have already been shown up as pedantic and pointless.
Fate has a wonderful habit of undermining such ill-conceived projects, and so it is a glorious irony that perhaps the finest one-day match of the 2000s - the tied NatWest Series final - also happened to be the last to be played under the old regulations. With the brash young threat of Twenty20 cricket cramping its style, the ageing 50-over game has been panicked into a graceless bout of cosmetic surgery. The upshot is a botched job that has probably served only to hasten the format's demise and make those younger arms look ever more attractive.
Twenty20 has had plenty of accessories draped around its boundary's edge in its three-year existence - Jacuzzis, bouncy castles and pop concerts to name but a few - but the cricket itself has been of the purest form imaginable. One-day cricket as it now stands, by contrast, has betrayed that very simplicity that made it an attraction in the first place. Somewhere, between the boardroom and the pavilion gate, the very essence of the game has been mislaid.
To add insult to injury, the changes are so ill thought-out, it is as if the surgeon had stitched the patient's elbow to his buttocks and vice versa. Given that no fielding captain in his right mind is going to leave his boundaries unpatrolled in the slog overs, it ought to have been the batsmen who get to pick the Powerplays, while the obligation to name one's starting XI before the toss gives an extraordinary advantage to the team that calls correctly.
But to dwell on such fundamental flaws is like staring at Michael Jackson's latest nosejob - it is not the crude rhinoplasty that should worry us, rather the need for such drastic measures in the first place. Cricket has long been accused of Americanisation in its bid to cement a permanent niche in world sport, but by opening itself up to the world of substitutions, the game has taken the first step towards the two-team approach - in the future, could we be seeing "offence" and "defence" line-ups? (Even the words themselves seem offensive.)
That would be a great shame, because cricket - like old-style rugby - has always been a game for all shapes and sizes. Until the onset of professional rugby, fat and four-square prop forwards were every bit as valuable as string-bean sprinters on the wing, but because the two were muddled up on the same field of play, some of the greatest moments came when the roles were reversed - the tree-trunk-thighed forward charging through an unexpected gap in the field, or the washing-powder-advert of a back forced to get his knees muddy at the bottom of a ruck.
Similarly, cricket fans have long delighted in the ineptitude of the genuine tailender. But these days, men such as Phil Tufnell and Devon Malcolm would hardly get a look-in in the England side, while Glenn McGrath is the last of a breed for the Aussies. His maiden Test fifty, against New Zealand last winter, was greeted with glee not just Down Under but all around the world. It has long been McGrath's desire to win a match for Australia with the bat. Seeing as he may never again see out an entire one-day international, his chances have just become all the slimmer, and the rich diversity of the game all the poorer.
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