September 1, 2010

Thumbs up, reluctantly

The most Australian players seem to be able to offer in support of the split-innings format trial seems to be "interesting"

"Interesting" is supposed to be an inoffensive word. It's how you might describe a wacky ex-partner, a boss' decision, or a friend's unflattering outfit. But tell a cricketer you find his strokeplay interesting when asking for an autograph and you won't be chatting for long.

Introduce a competition that the organisers hope will change the landscape of international cricket and they would hope the response from the main participants would be better than them saying "interesting". Yet that's the general view of Australia's major players to the split-innings, 45-over, one-day format that will be trialled in the domestic competition from October.

It's true that the players didn't like Twenty20 until they had a hit, but the response in this case has been so underwhelming that Cricket Australia has had to look to Sachin Tendulkar for the most glowing recommendation. Tendulkar has nothing to do with Australia's domestic scene, of course, and always says nice things about everything. Michael Hussey and Nathan Hauritz think the format is interesting. Ricky Ponting is hopeful.

Hussey, who was resistant from the initial stages, called the timing of the move "interesting" and said it's going to be "interesting" to watch how it goes. "We're going to be interested to see what new tactics are used, how captains use it, and how different players come to the fore," he said. "I hope we don't focus on it too much in this particular year in the lead-up to the World Cup because I think we've got to make sure we get our 50-over cricket very sound."

A rough translation from cricket speak to common usage is: "How can they be doing this before such an important event?" Between February and March, Australia will attempt to win a fourth World Cup in a row, but in the lead-up to the tournament those not involved in the ODI team won't have any formal 50-over games.

When a new sponsor comes on, like the phone company that gave the contracted players new mobiles during the camp last week, the player plaudits rain on social networking sites. Start a new format before a World Cup and it's almost possible to hear the grating teeth in the replies.

Ricky Ponting, now 35, was asked last week if he would ever play a split-innings one-dayer, and he first started discussing Australia's Sheffield Shield preparation ahead of the Ashes. He thinks he will play one before he retires, but it might not be this year because he rarely fits in games with Tasmania.

"I will get a taste of split innings at some stage, and even if I don't get to play it I will be hearing a lot from the other players about the format and how it works," Ponting said. "Hopefully that now we know where it's going, hopefully it's a great success and the players around Australia enjoy playing it."

"Hopefully" is a hugely different description from wonderful, fabulous or exciting. Ponting is the most important cricketer in the land, an increasingly thoughtful man whose views can sway opinion. Reading into his reply, there was a sense that golf or a bad back - or both - might take precedence if he's asked to join Tasmania for a 45-over affair this summer.

Cricket Australia's desire to improve the flagging 50-over format is commendable and the initiative is a rare show of radicalism from an often conservative body. Telling such a powerful group as the players that they have to do something they don't want to also shows leadership. Except in this case 78% of them said it was a bad idea

Cricket Australia's desire to improve the flagging 50-over format is commendable and the initiative is a rare show of radicalism from an often conservative body. Telling such a powerful group as the players that they have to do something they don't want to also shows leadership. Except in this case 78% of them said it was a bad idea in an Australian Cricketers' Association survey. If the game had to be trimmed, they wanted a 40-over two-innings match instead of four periods leading to 45 overs.

Hussey and Clarke are two well-mannered, mild-mannered players from the Tendulkar school of favouring the bright side in public outings. "I would need to play it before making a comment on it," Clarke said. He's the Twenty20 captain and so understands the lure of new formats and gimmicks. The most praise he offered in the short reply was to concede it was worth trialling in domestic cricket before internationals. "We will see how it goes from there," he concluded.

Nathan Hauritz recognised the need to do something different with the one-day format because of the glut of fixtures. This is the most common complaint from everyone but the broadcasters when it comes to 50-over games. A reduction of matches is as likely as the ICC being convinced of the new format in time for the 2015 World Cup.

Hauritz thinks spin bowlers could deliver the last five overs of the first innings, then open the bowling for the second half in the field. Is it confusing to think about playing it? "It's going to be tough on fast bowlers," he said. "It'll be interesting to see how it all goes."

The domestic one-day competition is currently without a sponsor, but Cricket Australia says the controversy about the format is creating interest, not hindering it. Player disgruntlement could already be pushing up the value.

Still, a couple of domestic players can't wait. Victoria's Aaron Finch and Tasmania's Xavier Doherty are excited by the format and there are rumoured to be senior players who think the same way. Hearing from them would be interesting.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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