October 14, 2009

More innings, more fun

The way to go to save the ODI would be to get rid of the various artificial restrictions and have four innings

Watching international sporting tournaments unencumbered by the blinkers of overt nationalism bestows certain inalienable rights on the observer. We demand a level playing field, where the protagonists compete on equal terms, ensuring a true test of worth. We demand quality. We demand action. We demand sweat and toil, and perhaps even a drop or two of blood. We demand justice. Above all, though, we demand tension and drama. Which is why the Champions Trophy, for all its merits, proved a more effective dampener than an extremely damp squib.

It is not unreasonable to assume that we Poms are predisposed, by our extensive experience of national failure at 50-over cricket, to turn our noses up at ODIs. Still, for all Peter Roebuck's justified complaint that the wall-to-wall nature of contemporary cricket so often deprives its followers of anticipation, I was fully prepared to shelve my disenchantment once I realised, however belatedly, that the Champions Trophy promised to be the leanest and meanest major one-day tournament yet.

Yes, the format, for once, was just right. Yes, thanks in good part to the pitches, it was often compelling. Yes, on occasion it was gloriously unpredictable, repeatedly rubbishing the formbook. Yes, individuals shone. Shane Bond and Mohammad Yousuf returned to the world stage and the game was all the richer; Mohammad Aamer and Gavin Tonge introduced themselves with dash and a flourish; Ricky Ponting emphasised the permanence of class, reaffirming that no contemporary batsman is his superior; Shane Watson continued stuffing humble pie down sceptical throats. Even gallantry was present and correct. Tension and drama, conversely, were infrequent and fleeting guests.

Of the 14 completed matches, only one - Australia's two-wicket, last-ball win over Pakistan - entered the final five overs with the outcome truly in the balance. Three went to the final ball, twice when the result was already decided; Australia-Pakistan aside, the closest margins were 22 runs and four wickets. Notwithstanding the absence of the hosts, to see a half-empty Wanderers for the final was to be assured that a) Monday is not quite the ideal day of the week to host such a climax, and b) imaginations had not been captured. Of course you can't orchestrate these things. Nor should we want to.

Twenty20, though, has exposed the limitations of its 50-over parent. That JP Duminy should give the Champions League such a rip-roaring kick-off three days later rammed home the point. Yes, most of the subsequent contests have been one-sided strolls blighted by slapsticky batting and stickier pitches, but at least they had the priceless virtue of a swift conclusion.

Of course familiarity has bred contempt. Of course the priority must be to reduce the number of ODIs (14, a record in a non-World Cup or Champions Trophy year, are scheduled for the next British season, plus four Twenty20s). Five-match series should be the maximum, ideally three. And yes, they should always precede any Test series. But the future of the planet's most chameleonesque ballgame requires rather more than a mere pruning of the fixture list.

LET'S EXAMINE THE THEATRICAL value, without which spectator sport would be the height of mundanity. Unlike Tests, where drama comes second to a leisurely appreciation of skill rather than vice versa - and where, crucially, saving a match is a worthwhile strategy - the abridged game is largely reliant on the close finish. Of late, these have not exactly been abundant. Of the 158 completed ODIs played by the 10 ICC full members prior to the Champions Trophy, just 19 culminated in winning margins of fewer than 10 runs or four wickets. That's barely 12%, one every couple of series.

Cricket needs a bridge between Twenty20 and Tests, a format that links these disparate forms. Persuading teenagers that five-day games are worth their time and easily divided attention will take some doing. Introducing them to the concept of a two-innings contest is a better bet

There was no better snapshot of this freedom from drama than the 2008 Asia Trophy: six sides played 13 games, with the closest margins 64 runs and six wickets. Of the past 28 bilateral series of five or more games, 20 have been decided before the final fixture. The merits of baseball's playoff system, where five- and seven-game series are concluded as soon as an overall result is obtained, have seldom been plainer. Fans put up with the uncertainty, as do broadcasters and clubs. Why should cricket be any different?

Talking from the safe side of the white line during that flatliner of a NatWest Series, Greg Blewett admitted finding 50-over games "tedious" to play (which might well explain why he averaged barely 20 in 32 ODIs, but that's another matter). Watching them can be even less stimulating. The third Powerplay has been hailed as a positive change but it didn't look so hot during the England-Australia series, where it was persistently delayed until after the 40th over, bleeding into, and thus obscuring, the customary last-10-over dash.

For those who believe the international game should retain its primacy, the figures are intensely sobering. According to a recent report in the Times of India, advertisers are willing to pay more for a 10-second slot during a Twenty20 match than for one in a Test or ODI, even though both offer more opportunities for prolonged brand exposure. During the IPL, advertisers were paying more than Rs 4 lakh for a 10-second slot, 25% more than for the World Twenty20. After India failed to qualify for the semi-finals, rates dropped. For the Champions Trophy, the projected rate was also Rs 3 lakh.

The ominous news certainly doesn't stop there. A few years ago, an ODI involving India was worth at least US$6 million (from broadcast, title and on-ground sponsorship); now it's down to less than $1m; an IPL game is worth $8m and a World Twenty20 match valued at $5m. TV rights to the entire five-match ODI series between India and Sri Lanka in March, plus a Twenty20 international, cost $5m all in. ''Valuation is not everything,'' insisted BCCI vice-president Rajiv Shukla. Really?

Caution has been urged. ''Anything which is new in India generally does well and Twenty20 is not an exception," said one broadcast executive. "We wonder how long the spectators can sustain their interest before reverting to ODIs. We are confident the trend will change." According to Shukla, "you can't mix the two [ODIs and Twenty20]". Both, he added, "have their charm and [both] are here to stay''.

I wonder. The England and Wales Cricket Board drew heaps of ridicule after 13 county chairmen not only voted to abolish their 50-over competition but expressed an enthusiasm for 40-over matches spanning two innings of 20 overs per side: it was ill-deserved. The South Africans are going the same way; both, clearly, have sniffed the winds of change. The ICC, after all, is also considering such a split, with ODIs comprising four alternating segments of 25 overs per side. One notable proponent is Sachin Tendulkar, who reckons that the results of "close to 75% of matches" could be predicted after the toss. "I quite like that idea," said David Richardson, the ICC cricket manager, who rightly believes that a good restaurant should never be fearful of changing the menu.

Writing with characteristic sagacity in the Times, Michael Atherton begged to differ. He urged the ICC to "deregulate", to go back to basics, and hence bring the 50-over game closer to the more natural way in which a Test evolves. No gimmicks. No artificial aids that only ever benefit batsmen. Their impact, he justly argued, has diluted the spectacle. "It has become more not less predictable and more formulaic. Bowlers know that containment can win games, batsmen know that the non-Powerplay overs demand risk-free accumulation, and captains are rendered powerless by restrictions."

Atherton's message is simple: ditch the additives and lose the clutter. No Powerplays. No fielding restrictions before the last 10 overs. And no limitations on the number of overs per bowler, a measure this laptop has been banging on about for years. Yet, potent as it may seem, this remedy goes only so far. Cricket needs a bridge between Twenty20 and Tests, a format that links these disparate forms. Persuading teenagers who have fallen for the former's fast-forward charms that five-day games are worth their precious time and easily-divided attention will take some doing. Introducing them to the concept of a two-innings contest, the very essence of the game, is a better bet.

Reducing the influence of the toss would be one positive by-product, though that shortcoming could be just as easily redressed if the toss was scrapped altogether and the choice given to the visiting team. Another, more far-reaching advantage would be conferred on the way the game markets itself.

When I was a teenager, only two friends shared my love of Test cricket. Happily, the 40-over Sunday League, televised live every Sunday afternoon of the summer, saw the non-disciples slowly acquire a taste for the longer game. Unless it doubles the number of innings, Twenty20 may prove too short to permit such a transition, hence one's reservations about commending the extremely prejudicial termination of the ODI. That, nonetheless, may still be the best bet.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton