October 2, 2007

Too much of a dull thing

Don't kill ODIs, but let's have a balance



England stumbled from middling to hopeless in their first ODI against Sri Lanka © Getty Images

Sri Lanka's game against England yesterday went exactly as you would have expected. Sri Lanka were efficient; England were middling early on, then hopeless. They had some new faces but no new script.

Phil Mustard made a Matt Prior score and got out to a Matt Prior shot, though to be fair he scored faster than Prior and promised more. Graeme Swann returned Monty Panesar figures, one for 47, though to be fair he did what he was picked for, making more runs than Panesar would have - in fact, one more than Panesar has made in his one-day international career. And still England collapsed horribly and failed to use their last 15 overs.

So in most ways, this game was just like all the other games England have blown overseas in the past umpteen years. But in one way it was different. It came hard on the heels of a highly successful global tournament, the World Twenty20 in South Africa. The climate has changed.

We shouldn't read too much into one game. This series could yet catch fire the way England's home series against India did: that too began with a failed run-chase and an easy home victory. What was significant yesterday was not how the match went, so much as how it felt. It felt like a non-event. It felt like a wedding where someone has just made a great speech and then someone else insists on getting to his feet to make a dull one.

England and Sri Lanka were two of the bridesmaids in South Africa, so no meeting between them would have been mouthwatering. It's just too soon. But a Test match would have been better than this, and so would a Twenty20 game.

The idea that 50-over internationals should now be dropped altogether, robustly advocated here by Andrew Miller, seems to me to be going too far. It's unrealistic, because the ICC and several national boards are addicted to 50 overs. And it's unwise, because nobody yet knows whether Twenty20 will work in bulk.

My guess is that it will. It should lend itself beautifully to series of five matches spread over two weeks. The scheduling will be easier, as Twenty20 can fill a ground any night of the week. But so far, nobody has held a five-match series: the ICC won't let them. It has set a limit of seven Twenty20 games per nation per year, "excluding [of course] ICC events".

That decision, ratified by the chief executives just before the World Twenty20, has been reiterated since by Malcolm Speed, the boss of ICC. Speed - who deserves great credit for finally presiding over his first satisfying international tournament - has now reverted to type. He wants 50-over cricket, "the financial driver of the game", to carry on happening four times as much as Twenty20, as well as taking two and a half times as long. But this position, too, is unrealistic and unwise. The demand for Twenty20 is there. It's hot; its elder sister is not.

In the long run, 50-over cricket may indeed die out. Twenty20 will always draw a bigger audience, other things being equal, because it fits in with work and school. It has the most reach of any cricket, and so, although it has fewer slots for adverts, the TV companies will be able to charge more for them. It is only a short format in the eyes of the more blinkered cricket lover. To the rest of the human race, it's a full two and a half hours - longer than a football match, longer than most films, longer than a double album.

In the long run, 50-over cricket may indeed die out. Twenty20 will always draw a bigger audience, other things being equal, because it fits in with work and school. It has the most reach of any cricket, and so, although it has fewer slots for adverts, the TV companies will be able to charge more for them

The ICC is being blinkered too - or rather dazzled, as ever, by the glint of the dollar signs. It makes no sense for teams to play 30 conventional one-dayers and only seven Twenty20s. Fifteen of each is about right for now. If contracts need renegotiating, so be it: broadcasters who are prepared to pay good money for 50-overs cricket, with all its tiredness and predictability, are sure going to be in the market for its sexy little sibling.

Speed also said, "We need to make sure the pie gets bigger rather than [remaining] the same size." Why? What's wrong with the present pie? Speed and his colleagues have pursued a policy of pie-enlargement for too long. This is a chance to introduce some sanity. Fate, or rather the former ECB marketing man Stuart Robertson, has handed them a magic wand. They can have less cricket, watched by more people, and eventually make more money. They might just have to take a small financial hit for a while. This appears to be beyond them.

Above all, they must make sure the players get more time off. (They too might have to settle for a little less money.) When a tournament is dropped into a breathing space, as the World Twenty20 was, the breathing space is still needed: in fact, it's needed even more. If Sri Lanka's series against England had been shunted into late January, would anybody have minded? Something has to give. As things stand, that something is the players' well-being, and the sense of occasion which is vital to every sporting format, short or long.

Read Andrew Miller's take on the same theme here.

Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. His book Young Wisden: A New Fan's Guide to Cricket is published this week by A&C Black. His website is timdelisle.com

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