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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Anneeq on September 13, 2009, 22:52 GMT

    Further more there should be 2 formats 2020 and tests. Tests are the soul of the game, its what the purists like me enjoy this is where the men get seperated from the boys. If u want the sort of cricket where you like watching personal battles and ppl fighting back to save matches like in ashes 1st test then just leave that for tests. ODIs and tests are really 2 sides of the same coin.

    2020's is intense, fast exciting cricket where everyone is on as equal footing as can be, the sort where the underdog can win. People talk about it as though its easy and no skill is involved, it takes a lot of skill to bowl tightly with the consecutive yorkers like Umar Gul in 2009 world 2020! The fielding is also to a v high standard, its high impact cricket.

    Also these useless tournaments like Chamions Trophy need to be axed it takes the attention from whats supposed to be the ultimate prize the WC. There should only be general tours, WC and in time when crickets popular enough Continental cups

  • Anneeq on September 13, 2009, 22:26 GMT

    50 over cricket is too long, about 30 overs it is just nudging and tapping the ball 20 of it is hitting. Cricket is a sport after all, its for our entertainment, so i dont understand this wierd statement say 2020 is 'a crowd's game.' Well isnt that the point of televised sport? for our entertainment?

    Boundaries defo need to be bigger, i mean ppl hitting a ball onto the road outside should be a rare event. I disagree that 2020 is purely a batman's game, the bowling in 2009 2020 tournament in particular is what took centre stage, the slower balls, the slow bouncers, Umar Guls persistent yorkers. Yes Chris Gayle and Dilshan took some of the limelight, but mostly it was the bowlers. 2020 actually NARROWS the gap the batsman have to innovate to bleed as many runs as they can (hence the 'Dil scoop') and the bowlers have to equally be on the button and innovate themselves (slower bouncer etc). Whereas in 50 over u just tap and score 1s + 2s and accumalate runs that way, 2020 forces u 2 act

  • Ani on September 13, 2009, 11:09 GMT

    The comments made by "the-anti-mule" are spot on! Greatness/ nostalgia is not the exclusive domain of ODIs. If a survey is to be taken in India, THE most memorable moment in the last 5 years would be the Misbah scoop that won India the World T20 - how is that for greatness/nostalgia? ODIs have a tough challenge ahead as the game is now an extended version of the T20s (not the other way around). If T20 tournaments attract Billion dollar sponsroships while the last two triseries featuring India only got sponsorships in the region of a few million $, its an ominous sign that ODIs are on the way out if not salvaged. I'm all for ODIs continuing - but it needs to be made meaningful, simple and competitive. In fact the balance of T20s between bat/ball should be restored - maybe 7/8 wickets per side instead of 10 - that would promote inclusion of specialist bowlers and a higher premium on the wicket. But can anyone tinker with a Multi-billion dollar format now?

  • Balaji on September 11, 2009, 1:28 GMT

    One answer would be to cut down the number of matches played. Far too many ODIS are being played and have made the format stale. Actually the 50 over game has been a good test of skills, much more so than the 20-20s. Also look at how it has impacted Test cricket. The general standard of fielding and running between the wickets has improved. The run rate has improved, in that batsman are now looking more to take singles of which previously were dot balls. The scheduling is also insane. For example series in the West Indies in July, ODI series in England in September. This is what everyone has to look at.

  • santhosh on September 11, 2009, 1:25 GMT

    i see no reason why the 50 over format should face extinction. personally, i feel it is the most challenging format of cricket. it strikes the right balance between cautious and aggressive cricket, unlike tests and T20's which are played only in one mode. 50 over matches call for good batting technique and an ability to score at a healthy rate at the same time. dismissing batsmen becomes as important as curtailing the scoring rate. whereas in the other two forms of the game one aspect in both batting and bowling is compromised.

  • Benjamin on September 11, 2009, 1:19 GMT

    Raft your comments are so spot on. I was accepting of the Australian's dropping the ashes this year given the inexperience of the side. On the flip side I was hanging off every delivery of our South African tour when we were winning it was amazing.

    Then looking at World Cups for example - I don't think I ever fired up so much when S.Waugh made 120* to guide Australia through to the Semi final against South Africa. Then the Allan Donald run out came along in the next game - it was insane. Gilchrist 100 in the last WC final, Pointing's 100 in the WC final before all great moments I will never for get as a Australian.

    T20 doesn't offer anything remotely close to those moments. As for the IPL i couldn't care less about the Kolkota Knight riders or any other team - I hardly know anyone playing than the internationals so it means little to me. ODI with some minor tweaking is still a great game and should be maintained. I'm totally consumed when my national team is playing but not T20's.

  • Suman on September 11, 2009, 0:24 GMT

    Peter need only look at the first paragraph of his own article to understand what makes a match great- "the battle between bat and ball has been compelling". Why does this apply only to ODIs and Tests but not to T20s?

    ODIs were always meant to be as entertainment and not shorter versions of tests. If you think T20s are too short then certainly we can work to find a format that is of right length yet retaining the entertainment value. Don't forget we still have tests for the purists in us.

    Lets not get blindly defensive about either ODIs or T20s.

  • barry on September 10, 2009, 20:28 GMT

    Apply the fielding resrictions of the first 15 overs and the powerplay to the full 50 overs. More runs will be scored and conversely more wickets will be taken - making the game the spectator spectacle it set out to be.

  • Chamara on September 10, 2009, 19:54 GMT

    The part that I enjoy the most in cricket is the battles that go on between teams, batsman/bowler. In test cricket a superb innings can change the outcome of a match in a single session. Same goes in ODI where 5 overs can change the outcome. In 20/20 there are no comebacks. It's sadly a case of instant gratification along with instant disappointment.

  • Suman on September 10, 2009, 17:53 GMT

    Sigh! here we go again. Mr. Roebuck makes an assumption and comes to a conclusion that fits his case. How can you assume that T20 does not provide for greatness? This is not only an incorrect assumption but a fundamentally ignorant one. Who is to say we will not see a Wayne Parnell destroying Australia (happened before in an ODI) in a T20 match only to see a rear-guard attack by a Hussey which eventually leads to a SA tie. The time may be short in a T20 but that doesn't mean memorable matches can't happen. Greatness doesn't have to be always an epic innings. Greatness is in fighting against odds.

    Yes there have been many great ODIs but that doesn't mean there wont be great T20s. ODIs should go not because they are bad but only because they are stale.

    Don't call T20s just money making vehicles in fact ODIs are being played only because of the time they provide for showing ads.

    I want both - a test match that can provide for epic greatness and a T20 for its explosive greatness.

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