September 21, 2009

A fortnight of Walkmans

The Champions Trophy has hardly been what it's cracked up to be, but now, with ODIs in terminal decline, it might show there's hope for the format yet

On Tuesday begins the first major ICC-hosted 50-over tournament since the 2007 World Cup (which Jonathan Agnew once memorably noted might still be running in the Caribbean somewhere). In those two-and-a-half years, a big change has come. There have been two wildly successful World Twenty20s, two loud, glittering IPLs, and many ICLs. There have been many ODIs too, though precisely none springs to mind.

The run-up to this Champions Trophy has felt like the run-up to a funeral - there have been so many obituarists of the 50-over format. Less morbidly it is like going to the great school nerd's party. It is a party, but really…

Lately the balance has been redressed a little with men belatedly leaping to the defence of the format. But at the very least, it must be conceded the next fortnight will feel like a switch back to Walkmans. Even Walkmans, however, often have fine retro appeal.

If this turns out to be the last Champions Trophy ever, the surprise will not be at its demise as much as at the tournament having survived six editions. It's difficult to remember a time when it was a good idea, apart from perhaps when it was first mooted: it would provide the ICC with a handy bit of revenue between World Cups, and by having the first two staged in Bangladesh (not a Test nation then) and Kenya, also spread word of the game further.

But deterioration settled in soon. In 2002 the tournament didn't even produce a final verdict. In 2006 it came too soon before a World Cup, the big brother. All the while, the number of teams - and useless matches - was increasing: nine in 1998-99 became 12 by 2004. There were fewer teams in 2006, but there was a redundant, forgotten qualifying phase before the tournament proper. It has never been about the best of the best, as it was meant to be.

Prospects appear brighter this time, however, and the ICC knows it. They've finally got the format right: short, sharp, and between the best teams in the world, even if England and West Indies appear to be this season's associate makeweights. It isn't the ICC's fault that England are so poor at ODIs, and the situation with West Indies is a delicate one.

As compensation Australia's dominance has eroded and the gap between everyone else is much narrower than rankings show. Those two teams apart, none of the other six, were they to win it, would be a surprise. Very few matches will have nothing at stake and very few will be easy to call.

The location is ideal, for rare is the occasion when a sporting event in South Africa turns out to be a dud. The 2010 football World Cup, understandably, is a bigger deal and one veteran journalist says many people are wondering whether the Champions Trophy isn't in Twenty20 vision. But crowds, as always, are expected to be good, helped by the tournament's restriction to two venues, Johannesburg and Centurion. South Africa's fate and history at such events, predictably, is on many minds.

If they get the pitches right, as they did with the IPL earlier in the year, then an even better spectacle can be imagined. And with less celebration, the tournament also marks the end of the ICL battle, with the return of men such as Mohammad Yousuf, Shane Bond, Daryl Tuffey, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and others. They were cricket's loss, and it can be no bad thing to have them back.

It is foolish and misplaced to pin so much on the tournament because it overlooks why ODIs are in such a funk. There are too many of them, most of them played on ghastly, unfair surfaces, all melting into each other, into one, indistinguishable, colourful but soulless mess

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Supposedly much rests on this tournament, to some no less than the very future of ODIs. The ICC believes the Champions Trophy will prove that the format has a space in the modern cricket calendar. It is foolish and misplaced to pin so much on this, if only because one poor tournament should not consign an entire format to death and because it overlooks why ODIs are in such a funk.

There are too many of them, most of them played on ghastly, unfair surfaces, all melting into each other, into one, indistinguishable, colourful but soulless mess. Why should there ever be a seven-ODI series, that too after such a fraught, intense Test series? Why shoe-horn into any available week, a quickie tri-series? Like this tournament, more matches should have more meaning; the ICC is gently nudging members to remember to keep a balance among the three formats in the next FTP. Many of cricket's problems would be resolved were the ICC not a nurdler and nudger but an enforcer.

Tinkering with regulations, rather than the format itself, might be the way. The batting Powerplay has pushed captains to break from patterned, formulaic thinking. Lifting the 10-over cap on bowlers might mean that the middle overs, that much-detested period of jousting and sparring, liven up. Force better pitches to be prepared. None of this is new of course, but repetition does not make it any less attractive or sound.

In any case are we sure that fans mind ODIs much the way they are? Judging by the healthy crowds who turned up to watch six kinds of crap beaten out of England, or parts of the Sri Lankan ménage a trios, maybe not.

Remembering recent ODIs may be difficult, but recalling empty stands at an ODI is more so. And the modern kings of cricket, the broadcast honchos, maintain that in Pakistan and India ODIs pull as many eyeballs as they did before Twenty20s came around. The Champions Trophy shouldn't only confirm that ODIs have a place. If we're fortunate it might pave a way for them to thrive once again.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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