July 5, 2009

Mix it up right

This summer, with its blend of Twenty20 and a top-flight Test series, may offer a blueprint for cricket's programme in the years ahead

It's a rare English summer when an Ashes series shares top billing with a limited-overs tournament. To discover another year like 2009 you have to go back to 1975, when the first World Cup preceded four Tests between Australia and England.

However, 1975 was different to 2009. First the World Cup was scheduled, and the authorities then decided that as Australia would be in the country, they might as well play a Test series, even though it wasn't an Ashes year. Thirty-four years ago the World Cup with its memorable final probably outshone a lacklustre Test series that provided three draws.

This time around it appears likely Twenty20 and the Ashes will share the spotlight. With cricket currently in a state of flux because of the success of Twenty20, this scheduling rarity may provide a blueprint for the game's future. The international cricket programme is a complete shambles, and there's a feeling that something has to give. The future could well feature a more selective Test programme, a wide range of Twenty20 competitions, including globalisation of the game via franchising, with precious little 50-over cricket. I'd be tempted to predict the death of 50-overs cricket, except that the World Cup is a valuable commodity and the administrators will be loath to let it slide into oblivion.

If Tests and Twenty20 are the main way forward what are the pitfalls?

First, the administrators need to wind back the peripheral entertainment element at Twenty20 matches. It was fine to have dancing girls and players miked up when international Twenty20 was a sideshow, with the odd game supplementing the main fare of Tests and 50-overs contests. However, now that Twenty20 has proved itself a popular and worthwhile form of the game, providing thrilling contests and skilful cricket, the balance has shifted. The game itself provides ample entertainment and the extraneous variety should be kept in its place: before and in between, but not during the matches.

This is more than just acknowledging the game can stand on its own two feet. The administrators have inadvertently devalued Twenty20 and created the thought in the players' minds that it's like a blob of fairy floss to be enjoyed following a substantial meal. The problem with planting that thought in the players' minds is where it could lead.

The administrators have inadvertently devalued Twenty20 and created the thought in the players' minds that it's like a blob of fairy floss to be enjoyed following a substantial meal. The problem with planting that thought in the players' minds is where it could lead

It's easy to manipulate a Twenty20 game. A slight alteration to the batting order here, an unconventional bowling change there, and the occasional wide slipped down the leg side at the appropriate moment and the crooks are satisfied. The unscrupulous player can rationalise his greed with the thought, "I haven't sold out the result."

There have been widespread rumours about the legitimacy of some of the cricket played in the now defunct ICL tournaments. That should alert the administrators to be on the lookout.

There's no doubt any manipulation of the Twenty20 game is heavily dependent on a corrupt captain. With the explosion in spread betting, the crooks could probably survive purely on having the captain in their pocket, although their greed generally knows no bounds. Cricket needs the captains to be in step with its crime-stoppers, not in league with the gangsters. It's important the public are sure it's always innovative captaincy on view, rather than an occasional greedy gamble.

Cricket has progressed in a haphazard vein for too long now and while there's much to commend there's also plenty to lament. Now is the right time for the administrators to start planning assiduously for the future. A future involving Test cricket played by just the major nations and including a world championship, plus a variety of Twenty20 competitions that globalise the game through franchises, is a manageable format.

There's no doubt this year's World Twenty20 was a resounding success, and the upcoming Ashes series promises to be a tight contest. This is a mix of cricketing entertainment that keeps everyone happy - the players, the fans and the bean counters. However, unlike 1975, where cricket fortuitously stubbed its toe on a large gold nugget, the way forward needs to be structured. If the administrators don't plan wisely, they may find that in the near future they are only nominally in charge of the game.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist

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