June 21, 2012

Is it time to bury the ODI?

As far as the limited-overs formats go, the 50-overs game has showed it has probably outlived its usefulness

The success of Twenty20 cricket, in the form of the mushrooming of domestic leagues around the world, is accompanied by concern about the future of Test and ODI cricket. Some of us have already signed a death warrant on these two more traditional forms of the game; that is obviously a hasty and dramatic conclusion. Cricket is actually at a very interesting stage in its evolution and it's too early to say where this game will be in 20 years' time; what we see today are only trends.

One sight that shook me last year, though, was that of a half-full stadium when India played England on a Sunday afternoon in an official ODI. This year the same stadium, the Wankhede, was packed to capacity for a domestic IPL game featuring Mumbai Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders.

Going forward I think it is 50-overs cricket, not Test cricket, that is more vulnerable as a format with the arrival of T20 in general and the IPL in particular. The main reason being that Test cricket is so completely different from T20 cricket that it will never be in competition with it. That will remain Test cricket's great strength.

T20 is the new, faster-paced version of 50-overs cricket, like a new processor in a computer, which mostly does the same things but quicker.

As I said earlier, recognising trends is important. The need for the constant tweaking of one-day rules is telling us something about one-day cricket. In today's world it is just not exciting the masses as much as it used to. T20 seems to have whetted the appetite for shorter, faster-paced cricket.

It would be a mistake to assume that the success of the last World Cup was a success of 50-overs cricket. That tournament was a hit because it was a World Cup, where nearly every match had relevance, unlike with most ODIs held every year. Also, the fact that many of the games were played in India added to the thrill and festivity. India doing well and reaching the final also assured a large fan following for the event right through.

Outside of that, I have had a problem with one-day cricket for a while now. Like its name suggests, it is cricket with limits - a format that never fully extended itself. A lot of cricketers with limited talents - bits-and-pieces cricketers, in-betweeners, neither very good batsmen nor very good bowlers - made long careers out of it. Neither this nor that, that is what 50-overs cricket is now, and that is its big weakness, which makes it the most dispensable form of the game today.

One-day cricket did some real good when it arrived on the scene, but we don't realise how much damage it has also done to cricket as we knew it. I remember the great Kapil Dev once telling me how one-day cricket had almost killed his outswinger. Kapil was forced to bowl a lot straighter than he would normally do, just to be economical in ODIs and also to make sure that he wasn't wided by the umpire every time that beautiful outswinger swung a little more. It was with great effort that Kapil finally got his outswinger back - which, he said, was by training himself to think like a Test bowler even when playing one-dayers.

Take a hard, critical look at it and you will see that ODI cricket has slowly but surely helped rid the game of pace, swing, spin, and harmed the techniques of batsmen and bowlers, and negatively affected the basic cricketing skills that made the game worth watching

Bowlers in one-day cricket stopped thinking in terms of taking wickets long ago and started thinking instead of stopping runs being scored. Bowlers in ODIs became like men pulling out water pistols in a wild-west gunfight. Think of how much harm this basic change in mindset has done to the sport as a spectacle.

For a large chunk of a 50-overs innings - from the 15th to the 40th - we have a situation where a batting team is happy to get four runs an over and the opposition is happy to concede them. Where is the contest?

Fifty-over cricket has also ensured the flattening-out of pitches, giving rise to a breed of successful attacking batsmen who hit through the line without moving their feet.

Take a hard, critical look at it and you will see that ODI cricket has slowly but surely helped rid the game of pace, swing, spin, and harmed the techniques of batsmen and bowlers, and negatively affected the basic cricketing skills that made the game worth watching.

All this is not to say T20 is not also a limited-overs format, which shares some of the ills of ODI cricket. It is, but it does not limit itself as much as 50-overs cricket does. It takes certain cricketing skills to the extreme - attacking batting, for instance; it also pushes bowlers to the edge, forcing them to dig deep and bring out all their skills to survive in response to extreme threat.

It's no surprise that we often see some really fast spells in T20 cricket from genuine fast bowlers. This is an attacking response, made possible because the fast bowler knows he is not going to be bowling more than four overs a day, and often just one over in a spell (an example of where limits actually help). So he does not tend to hold back. The same can be said about fielding too.

Learning from the damage done by one-dayers, if the number of T20s played is kept down and matches are made relevant, T20 cricket can do no worse than ODI cricket - and its appeal is far greater and its financial benefits more far-reaching. I do believe the time has come for administrators to stop expending their energies on bringing life back into one-day cricket. There is only so much you can do with its basic concept. The market too has spoken against one-dayers - sponsors are not excited about them unless it's a World Cup. Administrators would be better off instead diverting their energy and time to Test cricket, which needs attention. In my next piece: how to make Test cricket viable in today's times.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter. His Twitter feed is here