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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • shirazu on October 16, 2009, 14:34 GMT

    The only problem that I think they are going to have with a two-innings ODI format is having too many games where the team coming out to bat in their fourth innings has lost already, for example needing 250 in 25 overs or something like that. Or on the flipside, a team that does badly batting first, say they go down by 70 runs, will know that there is no hope of victory unless they post a very big total in their second innings, leading to blowout or even innings wins.

    Still this happens all the time in regular ODI's, so it's no big loss. And the strategy in the new format should be very interesting.

  • sysubrceq0 on October 15, 2009, 3:43 GMT

    In my opinion, ODI's are fine with the current format.. dont need to split into 4 innings. But the disadvantage is weather conditions and Due in air for D/N matches for batting second team. Now currents pitches which allow 300+ scores means Win toss and select batting.. like Premadasa stadium. So i feel ODI's should be divided into 4 innings as four 25 overs, but the second innings is continuation of first innings. Ex: AUS-ENG match... Aus 1st inng 1-138 in 25 overs and Eng 3-68 in 25 overs. BREAK. then Australia starts from 25.1 where it discontinued with same batsmen not as fresh innings, which allows the batsmen to score centuries and reach milestones, may ENG can get advantage to comeback and fight. If rain interrupts we can decide the match on first 25 overs play. So no boring 15-40 overs, if a team is allout before 25 overs then can win by innings (as in test matches)

  • vladtepes on October 15, 2009, 2:36 GMT

    Leave ODI alone. If anything, move them back to 60-overs matches like they started back in the 1970s. That gives teams more chance to rebuild after an early collapse, and it gives bowlers more time to attack the tail who tend to take liberties in the waning overs. Also, when a team is chasing a low D/L total in a few overs, they can still hack away at the bowlers with the security of all 10 wickets in hand. I think removing wickets by using the D/L formula levels the field, so, instead of chasing 120 in 20 overs, they could chase 120 in 20 overs with only 7 wickets in hand. Now I dare you to hack away. The comparison with baseball is skewed because you don't start each baseball innings with the same opening batsman. Each innings begins with the next batsman in the batting order, which is set and unalterable before the game begins. One of the charms of cricket is it's not baseball.

  • NZ_Cricket_supporter on October 15, 2009, 2:27 GMT

    Its not just watching cricket, remember that people ACTUALLY go out on a saturday and play cricket. I personally hate 20/20 and dont watch it at all. If our current tournament where I lived changed to 20/20 (which was a proposal) then I would retire from cricket altogether. Cricket players like to watch test and 1day cricket. Not many people I know like 20/20 except non-cricket players (my partner for example), because the action is faster. But is this who you are trying to get to come along to games? and are you trying to get rid of the people who play cricket?

  • peeeeet on October 14, 2009, 23:30 GMT

    They don't need to change anything about ODIs. The best thing, for all cricket actually, would be to get variety in pitches again. Being an Australian, I remember when the WACA was the bounciest pitch in the world, Sydney was a dustbowl, Gabba and MCG were green - now they all pretty much look and do the same. Personally, I'm loving the low scores in the Champions Trophy and the 'difficult' pitches, as we are seeing batsmen of real class succeed because they have to build an innings rather than smash and dash (Katich, Kallis and Hughes to name a few). ODIs are fine - maybe get rid of powerplays and go back to normal first 15 overs. Or maybe enforce that all powerplays must be done by 35th over, so the latest the batting team can take their's is the 30th. And they could try the super-sub again because that would work, they just got it wrong. The captain should have available maybe 14 players, lineups can change after toss, then 3 players to choose from to make 1 sub for 2nd innings.

  • NashRambler on October 14, 2009, 22:34 GMT

    Mr. Steen,

    When arguing in favor of a 2 innings per side One-Day format you need to make CRYSTAL CLEAR whether you are arguing for 2 innings per side with 10 wickets per innings (20 wickets total for each side) or whether you are arguing for 2 SEGMENTS per side for 10 wickets across both segments. The comments to your article demonstrate the confusion which results from not clearly indicating your preference.

  • chaitumart on October 14, 2009, 21:08 GMT

    A better way of making ODI more interesting , split it in to 30 and 20 overs innings,choice of which to choose first is up to the captain. In the 30 overs innings ,a team has only 5 wickets while batting.This would make batsman more cautious ,making them play more of cricketing shots rather than slog, making them build their innings.This would allow bowlers to be more attacking, looking to take wickets ,as they have very chance of taking 5 wickets in 30 overs.The other 20 overs would be like t20 .This set up would bring both test players as well as t20 players in one frame , would make cricketers to acquire both test as well as t20 skills. If a team starts of batting 30 overs , the other team can bat 20 overs innings,then bowl 20 overs , and at last bat out their 30 overs innings.This would make teams more strategic on how they plan their innings.

  • criceasy on October 14, 2009, 19:46 GMT

    Dividing ODIs into two 20 overs innings is basically making it a Twenty20 game with 2 innings and accepting defeat to Twenty20 format. I would rather preserve ODI in its current form, but reduce it to 40 overs, with some creative ideas that stimulates interest. For example, penalize batsmen, if they play score less than 2 runs a over. award 1 extra ball to the batsman, if he scores 2 or more sixes. when you can penalize the bowlers for bowling wides, why not do that to batsmen, who are boring. that makes them look for runs and entertains the crowds. Leave that purist game of playing on merit to test cricket. Think out of the box to generate interest. otherwise, it is just a matter of time before ODI will meet its creator

  • lucyferr on October 14, 2009, 19:37 GMT

    Finally! Someone who realizes that the true measure of a sporting contest is how much uncertainty of the result there is near the end. (Come to think of it, a statistician could quantify this using information theory.) In baseball, there are nine innings - the batting & bowling/pitching are really mixed up, making it easier for a team to 'catch up' - and making a superior sporting product. (Plus baseball isn't overly biased towards the batters.) Of course, nine innings in cricket would be ridiculous - nobody's calling for that. But the question purists like geedubnz should be asking isn't why ODIs should be modified to have two innings, but rather why ODIs didn't have two innings to begin with in the first place. In the 70s, when ODIs were started, didn't anyone question the validity of having a cricket match with just one innings?

  • emir on October 14, 2009, 18:49 GMT

    odi are still interesrting there is nothing bad about it its just those who have now started to watch cricket feel that 2020 is better but pure cricket lovers still watch odis and more focus sould be given to the international fixtures

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