February 18, 2011

The ODI is dead, long live the ODI

There's absolutely nothing wrong with one-day cricket as the matches in the format in 2010 showed us. It's just a matter of context and giving the bowlers more power

By the second half of 1976, Led Zeppelin's time was up. Punks were slashing out - literally and musically - a new future. Zeppelin were loud but overblown, too intricate, too earnestly immersed in the craft and too long; dinosaurs, Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols called them.

Punk was a reaction: short, sharp, quick, everything Led Zeppelin and their type weren't. What's more, punk's breed was loudly and brashly dismissive of what had gone before, as if there was no point to it and that the world had been built only after their arrival and on three chords alone. The world turns and society breathes on these kinds of passings.

A similar air breezes through cricket just now. A new fad has arrived and worked its way into the mainstream. Twenty20 is cricket's new poster boy. Advocates trumpet its virtues and do so at the expense of the old order, the 50-over game, which some boards refuse to play domestically; some have even started cutting its length further. Some want to bastardise it so it isn't the same game at all. Great players, players who have lit up the format, moan about it. It's too long and too predictable and the middle is too flabby. To some there is no longer any point to the longer game, so much so that sometimes you begin to wonder why it ever existed in the first place.

I have enjoyed watching ODIs over this last year or so, even if that sounds uneasily like a confession. There were too many of them - nearly 150 in 2010 alone - but I seem able to remember more ODI moments and games from this period than I have done for some time.

The Asia Cup, ever the byword for bloated pointlessness, had some fine, tense matches. England's series win over Australia in midsummer carried within it electricity and meaning and outstanding cricket. Pakistan's loss to England two months later had all of that, only multiplied a few times over. In between, Bangladesh found time to sneak a thriller over England.

Then, over six days in October and November, in the Middle East and Australia, there came five games that hammered home precisely why ODIs are meant to be. Three, between Pakistan and South Africa, and Australia and Sri Lanka, were decided with only a wicket to spare. Another was settled by two runs. All went to the wire, turned this way and that, and went further.

And quite apart from the significance of Bangladesh swamping New Zealand 4-0, it simply added to the atmosphere that three of those wins were by 10 runs or fewer. Two close games between India and South Africa in January, meanwhile, lit up a beautiful, meaningful five-game series. Who will ever forget that at nearly 40, the ODI produced a first just last year, a double-hundred?

I have no reason to believe I am alone in enjoying these moments. The majority of these matches were watched in sold-out stadiums. TV ratings were healthy. Even in 2009, when the sniping against the 50-over game was at its sharpest, the Australia-England series, and then Australia's subsequent seven-match slug-fest with India, were mostly sold out. TRPs for the latter contest were, on average, five times those for the inaugural Champions League.

It's never wise to give too much credence to what TV and marketing men say, but even a casual glance suggests that the current hand-wringing - to which this piece no doubt contributes - might be a little overdone. Cricket Australia and the ECB have carried out a gazillion consumer researches - are we selling biscuits? - that apparently prove the ODI is dead. Accordingly one of those boards has dumped 50 overs in favour of a 40-over domestic format, and the other has tried to split the format to make it into a Test. Yet in January the two got together to play exactly the same dead, 50-overs-in-one-innings, matches. Seven of them and no matter that it was, for all purposes, a whitewash. The response from Australian players, in fact, has been decidedly mixed to a split format. Beyond some journalists, then, who really even wants the format dead?

What Cricket Australia's research most likely shows is not that ODIs are hated, but something we've always known: that crap contests between mismatched teams, or meaningless ones in a series that has already been decided, are hated. Unsurprisingly the results came soon after Australia had won nine out of 10 ODIs in their last (2009-10) summer against a dysfunctional Pakistan and a clueless West Indies. One game was washed out. It was the kind of viewing designed to push people to reality TV. The original and best tri-series, played every summer in Australia, and provider of so many of the ODI's finest moments, was dumped for this.

This last year or so actually was not a revival of the format so much as a reminder of what is good about it. One of cricket's greatest joys is the many paces the narrative moves at. A half-hour spell of wickets, an hour's burst of runs, two sessions of nothing in particular sandwiching an adrenaline-fuelled one, 15 overs of single-hunting, 10 overs of death bowling and slogs; this is life, of moods within moods.

Like shy teens, cricket takes time to fully express itself. An innings can be about an agenda being set. It can be about reconstruction. It can be about stealth and accumulation. A batsman can defend and attack in one hand, a bowler can seek wickets or stem the flow of runs in one spell. Indeed, one of the peeves of Twenty20 is how it reduces a fast bowler essentially to a means of saving runs; even the slower ball, once a wicket-taking piece of classy deception, is now a stale staple in Twenty20, to stop boundaries being hit.

Fifty overs still provides a broad enough canvas, and an examination prolonged enough of any player, to produce or confirm quality and greatness. It is long enough that, if there is a twist, it is felt that much more. The eighth-wicket stand between Lasith Malinga and Angelo Mathews that shocked Australia recently, or Abdul Razzaq's heist against South Africa in Abu Dhabi at the same time, are tales that cannot be told in any other format. They are unique in their contribution to the tapestry of the game. Attempts to keep alive the possibility of them recurring cannot so readily be shunted aside.

Not all of it, of course, glitters. There are issues. Led Zeppelin didn't just fade out because of punk; they were combusting internally.

Everyone knows there are too many ODIs played, far too many of which lack much context and meaning. This has been a decade of cricket excess in many ways, though nothing captures it better than 10 years of seven-match ODI contests and the week-long tri-series forgotten quicker than last year's Pop Idol. They make money for broadcasters, of course, but now that Twenty20s serve that purpose as well, can some harmony not be reached? In this light, Ricky Ponting's plea to kill dead-rubber games, as is done in some US sports, is an absolute winner.

ODIs must become more like Tests, as Michael Atherton has argued, in the equality with which bat meets ball. Go easy on the leg-side wides. Allow more bouncers. Don't restrict all bowlers to 10 overs. Bring back one ball at each end. There never was, and there still isn't, a sound reason to prolong the emasculation of bowlers

The ICC, for once, is doing something about it, though in a fashion typical of a body representing nine vastly unequal governing boards. A rolling four-year ODI league is to become part of the Future Tours Program after the 2011 World Cup, at the end of which a league champion will be proclaimed. If it doesn't come with some kind of imposed standardisation, to ensure all sides play each other an equal number of times, home and away, it will be skewed and redundant.

There is also talk of removing the long-mishandled, little-loved Champions Trophy. Instead, by getting rid of Associates, the World Cup from 2015 onwards - still pencilled in as a 50-overs contest incidentally - is trying to become more like what the Champions Trophy should have been. Perhaps the answer is in the 1992 World Cup. Not much other than the rain rule was wrong with it; certainly not the format of all sides playing each other once and the top four going through.

Questions of structural change, meanwhile, are actually questions of perception and taste. To many the middle overs of an ODI are like the dark ages without the violence. To others appeal the changes of pace, the shining of a light on running as a skill. Still, for the ones who just miss the boundaries, the ICC has added the batting Powerplay, and if nothing else this has at least brought the prospect of unpredictability to a phase that is often formulaic. Yet in the struggle to utilise fully the Powerplay (how many players have refused to use it when set, only for it to be called once one batsman has gone and overs are running out anyway?) the basic defensiveness of the modern-day captain and player has also been exposed. It is difficult to argue with Ian Chappell on most issues, but more so on the point that captains themselves must bring more adventure to these periods, as well as to the game itself.

Other matters should be more straightforward. ODIs must become more like Tests, as Michael Atherton has argued, in the equality with which bat meets ball. Go easy on the leg-side wides. Allow more bouncers. Don't restrict all bowlers to 10 overs. Bring back one ball at each end. There never was, and there still isn't, a sound reason to prolong the emasculation of bowlers.

Pitches need to be produced where batsmen have to graft to profit. The best games this last year, and historically, have been where 260 meets 250, not 350 meets 300. Two Australia-South Africa games well illustrate the point: neither the 1999 World Cup semi-final at Edgbaston or the 2006 Wanderers 434 chase will be easily forgotten, but the better game? Easily the former, where bowlers had as much say as batsmen.

It is to the ODI's misfortune that, like Af-Pak, it is hyphenated. An ODI cannot now be assessed without a Twenty20, and the benefit of one must necessarily be to the detriment of the other. In a sense the ODI has always been this way. Before Twenty20, an ODI wasn't a Test.

It has rarely been the format that has been played purely for the sake of playing. It is the format where, other than making money, cricket has gone to test theories and ideas and tinker: cutting the number of overs, colouring kits and changing the colour of the ball, playing at night, exploring new lands and neutral territory, pulling in new countries, and much, much else. Yet this period has reminded this writer at least that an ODI can be enjoyed and experienced purely as an ODI. Why can cricket simply not make peace with its three representations, side by side, unique and varied in the challenges they put to players and the pleasure they bring to viewers?

Led Zeppelin never fully recovered from the onslaught of punk. They sputtered on, changed and diminished. A member died, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant fell out. Now they get together occasionally and sound like a bad cover band of themselves. Punk finished them then, but really, for posterity, it did no such thing.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo