September 10, 2009

There's life in the ODI yet

No version of the game that has produced so many outstanding feats ought lightly to be tossed away in favour of a format that does not offer the possibility of greatness

For an endangered species 50-over cricket appears to be in remarkably good health. Cast as the saviour of a supposedly moribund game, the format continues to attract large crowds and to produce stimulating cricket. Indeed the current series between England and Australia has been especially interesting, not least because the battle between bat and ball has been compelling.

Both the recent ODIs and the Twenty20 World Cup confirm that cricket prospers when batsmen and bowlers have an equal chance of emerging with the soup. In this case, too, the teams are well matched, and besides, the captains have been fretting about the batting Powerplay, a device that seems to be as much of a mixed blessing as the Irish contingent once bestowed upon the Duke of Wellington; studying them the Duke remarked that he did not know whether these troops scared the enemy but "by God they terrify me!"

Admittedly 50-over cricket has started to look its age. In some opinions it has served its purpose and ought to be put out to grass. In other views it ought to be rejigged so that teams bat twice - anything to avoid the quiet period of collecting runs in the middle overs (mind you, captains are partly to blame - fields are put back automatically, which makes it hard to take wickets).

Everyone seems to be excited about Twenty20, whose bandwagon rolls along. But this is lust, not love. Twenty20 provides wealth, fame, glory, gratification, and all of it in five minutes. It's a good night out, and none the worse for that. Small wonder youth likes it. But let's not pretend it leaves memories, makes an impact, provides satisfaction. And let's give 50-over cricket its due. Over the years it has produced a lot of good cricket. And it's hardly the fault of the format that the hand has been overplayed, with too many irrelevant tournaments and so forth.

Far from thanking them for their services and dispensing with them, 50-over matches ought to remain an important part of the programme. Great heavens, it's not so long ago that they lifted the game from its torpor.

Apart from the West Indians, and an early surge from Richie Benaud (ahead of his time, and soon undermined in his own country by some particularly crusty leaders) cricket effectively ignored the 1960s. For all its failings, it was a time for opportunity and informality. Suddenly the family did not put on its best clothes and troop off to church on a Sunday morning. Sniffing the wind, sensing that youth was rapidly becoming a market in its own right, music and fashion responded with Carnaby Street, Twiggy, the Beatles, the Kinks and so forth. Cricket continued to offer Roger Prideaux and Fred Rumsey. Of course, it could not last.

Hereabouts was cricket's greatest challenge. Could it adapt to its changing world? Of course it could. Cricket's genius is vastly underestimated. No other game survived the class divisions of England half as well as it did, and it did so by pretending to reflect them. Everyone knows about the Gentlemen-and-Players matches, and the different ways amateurs and professionals were listed on scorecards, and the fact that for decades they used different changing rooms and train compartments and hotels, and that England and its counties could only be captained by an amateur. On the surface the game looked divided, but cricket found ways to remain intact - devices that allowed the classes to play in the same sides without offending contemporary mores. It was a triumph. Some other sports never did recover from the separation.

Fifty-over cricket has been more sinned against than sinning. Sometimes the cricket community forgets that it exists not for itself but its public. Reporters occasionally forget that though they might cover 35 ODIs a year, most spectators get one chance. The weariness exists mostly in our minds

Cricket likewise took the 1960s in its stride. Of course it did not put it that way. Rather it responded to economic forces. Empty stands and red ink in books told the tale. Not for the last time, the English counties led the way with a 60-over competition. At first the players did not know what to make of it. As far as they were concerned it was an odd creation, not exactly slapstick but hardly Ibsen either. Ted Dexter - long one of the most original of England's cricket thinkers - was first to understand the tempo and meet the requirements of this "new" form of the game, and Sussex, his county, duly won the first two finals played at Lord's (no snootiness detected).

Next came an altogether more audacious innovation, a Sunday league of 40-over matches. The idea was taken from the Cavaliers side that used to go around England playing friendlies on Sunday afternoons. Working life had changed. The week was busy, Saturdays were reserved for shopping, and Sundays were put aside for outings and so forth. But 40-over matches did not interfere with Sunday lunch or church, or for that matter hangovers. Supporters flocked to the matches. County cricket came to life. Before long almost all the great players in the game were representing one city or another. Not that the pay was high. Fat television contracts had not yet come along. But the crowds were large and the cricket was vibrant. And although matches were fixed even in 1969 (a point a past president of MCC could confirm), it was overwhelmingly a time of innocence.

Eventually a third one-day competition was introduced, a 55-over affair, a length designed mostly to set it apart, thereby pleasing the sponsors. By now a new generation of cricketers had arrived, players capable of adapting to meet different demands.

England could have continued on this path indefinitely. One-day cricket remained an English innovation. Finally a World Cup was arranged, a 60-overs-a-side tournament played in England and ending memorably at dusk on the longest day of the year. Next came the Packer rebellion and the second awakening. Suddenly one-day cricket took giant leaps, into night cricket, coloured clothing, circles, white balls, catchy songs, adverts, marketing and the rest of it.

Sixty-over cricket could not survive the spread of the one-day game. It was peculiarly suited to more temperate local conditions. Fifty-over cricket was the inevitable result - a length of game that could be played in all countries, including wintering India and Pakistan, a contest that could be completed in a single day without starting at dawn. Ever since, cricket has been able to catch and retain the imagination not only of the dreaming child but also of the hard-pressed labourer and the weary mother.

And many have been the delights of 50-over cricket. Among them can be counted the exuberant piratical batting performances produced by Sanath Jayasuriya; the classical innings contributed by Sachin Tendulkar; Steve Waugh's stunning fight-back in Leeds; the startling knocks played by Brian Lara and Matthew Hayden in the 2003 World Cup; Wasim Akram's scintillating burst in Melbourne, South Africa's thrilling chase in Johannesburg; upsets achieved by Holland, Ireland, Kenya and others; and the glorious World Cup wins accomplished by Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. Every nation will have it own memories. No version of the game that has produced so many outstanding feats ought lightly to be tossed away, and not in favour of a format that offers many things but not the most important of them all - the possibility of greatness.

Fifty-over matches retain their attraction. As Mr Sidhu might put it, though, honey used on every plate tends to lose its taste. The format has been overdone. Familiarity breeds drudgery. The Champions Trophy hardly seems important. And greedy boards arrange all sorts of silly matches in far-off places and expect their players to turn up with a smile. Moreover the matches themselves have been too slow-moving. Not the least attraction of Twenty20 is that hardly any time is wasted. Yet teams are allocated almost four hours to deliver a measly 50 overs. Drinks breaks, meandering batsmen, pottering bowlers and indecisive captains slow things to a crawl. Three hours ought to be plenty for 50 overs. And spectators ought to e treated respectfully. Cricket can learn as much from IPL as it can from World Series baseball.

Nevertheless the format has improved and the recent introductions of batting and bowling Powerplays has been constructive. Apart from anything else they create speculation. Reluctant to meddle, captains understandably delay taking their batting Powerplay till the 43rd over or so. It's hard to know whether too much faith is placed on those five overs or too little. Anyhow it certainly sparks debate and reduces predictability.

Fifty-over cricket has been more sinned against than sinning. Sometimes the cricket community forgets that it exists not for itself but its public. Reporters occasionally forget that though they might cover 35 ODIs a year, most spectators get one chance. The weariness exists mostly in our minds.

Moreover 50-over cricket has been unlucky in its most recent World Cup, which was a botched job. Contrastingly the Twenty20 world cup and the first two IPL campaigns were superbly presented. But 50-over cricket has staying power, is good for the game, allows the leading cricketers to produce almost their best cricket and lets supporters watch 22 players and see a result in a single day. It's worked for close to 40 years and the benefits have been huge. Doubtless further improvements await but 50-over cricket belongs the the future, not the past.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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