September 5, 2012

ODIs: still necessary, no longer evil

How much of the backbone England currently show can be traced to the benefits of one-day cricket?

In first-class cricket, it can be said the players dictate the way the game shall be played; in limited-overs cricket, the game dictates to the player. Instant cricket, although cutting against the grain of most positive thinking cricketers, has become a necessary evil.
- Brian Close

For a couple of days last month it was as official as these things get. For the first time since the nation's lowest ebb, that pitiful and shameful day in 1958 when Tito Burns began promoting Cliff Richard as the Limey Elvis, cricketing Poms - by birth or profession - ruled the waves, the planet and, more than probably, the cosmos. Numero uno in all three formats, cocks of the walk, gods of all things small, round and hard. It was a rare, laudable and wholly unexpected achievement that in no way received its due. To attribute this merely to the O-word would be an oversight of Olympian proportions.

Dystopia may be more inevitable and durable than utopia but the collective sag of the Oval Test still came as a shock to many. Its suddenness, though, has an upside as well as a downside. As borne out by Andy Flower's occasionally agitated responses of late, the pain must be searing. Bestowed in part by a kindly schedule, those delusions of grandeur in the longest format were extinguished with a savage finality - though Flower and Alastair Cook will doubtless sell it to the troops, what with India beckoning and back-to-back Ashes looming, as a timely rollicking. On the other hand, mindsets and personnel have had to change and adapt on the hoof. Shocks don't come much shorter or sharper than those suffered amid the torrid final days of the former People's Republic of Andocrasia.

Did the nation's foremost ballplayers convince themselves, as Whitehall did, that spending the soggiest of Augusts in those interminable Olympic shadows would mask the cracks? Instead, reality strode briskly down the garden path brandishing an oversized umbrella and a fistful of alarm bells.

Over the past month Team England have lost their senior captain and spiritual leader, the most prolific batting firm they've ever fielded, and maybe their best batsman too, for the foreseeable future if not forever. Their most potent bowling allrounder appears to have mislaid a sizeable chunk of his mojo, ditto the premier spinner, whose mind is starting to make promises his right arm can't keep. They've also traded flypaper fingers for buttery paws, a sure sign of any team camping below the summit of its capabilities (and arguably the cause of that persistent inability to capture the D'Oliveira Trophy). What's not to panic about?

The good news is… there is some. Plenty, actually. The past month has proffered any number of cheering clues to English cricket's medium-term future, all furnished and burnished by moments, passages and triumphs against those self-same South Africans, who regularly ask the sternest questions on the circuit, even if ruthlessness remains elusive. Regardless of today's result at Trent Bridge, England will end 2012 atop the ODI rankings - quite possibly the most unsuspected power shift the game has seen since Sanath, Aravinda and Arjuna barged the big boys aside in 1996.

The list of those responsible for this feelgoodness is encouragingly young and satisfyingly long. Steven Finn trying on Jimmy Anderson's mantle and not only wearing it bloody well but rousing the old boy himself; Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan reigniting; Jimmy Taylor's unfazed stoicism; Jonny Bairstow's bodacious counter-attacks; James Tredwell's delightfully old-fashioned belief in flight, slowness and stumpings; Jade Dernbach's stirring faith in those natty back-of-the-handers even though everyone, even Chris Read, knows they're coming; Dernbach again, throwing out Ryan McLaren (who knew he could propel anything that fast?). The common denominator? A vigorous refusal to be intimidated - by context, rival, predecessor or even form. Call it fearlessness.

Calculating how much of this priceless asset can be traced to the benefits of what was once roundly derided as "instant cricket" would be impossible, but let's just say the game didn't get where it is today by encouraging caution. How strange, then, to recall the vehement objections of that most fearless and luckless of cricketers, Brian Close, who repeatedly pooh-poohed the new brand as "instant rubbish", to which his employers at Yorkshire, not entirely unreasonably, took exception.

The way we were certainly warrants little nostalgia. While South Africa were drawing first blood in Hampshire last Tuesday, an important anniversary was being neglected: the same day 40 years earlier had seen the conclusion of the very first ODI series: England, inspired by Tony Greig and Barry Wood, squeezed home by two wickets in a gripping Edgbaston low-scorer against Ian Chappell's baggy green 'uns to take the inaugural Prudential Trophy, but drama was just about the lone familiar ingredient. Keith Stackpole alone reached 50, Australia progressed at a little over three an over, and of the 32 boundaries, not one was worth six. In those three 55-over contests, in fact, just two blows cleared the rope, one courtesy Close himself, whose temporary restoration as national captain proved as sweet as his views on the medium were sour.

"Limited-overs cricket is negative cricket," harrumphed this only slightly sullied standard-bearer for positivity in his 1978 autobiography, I Don't Bruise Easily, famously if cruelly described by EW Swanton as "the longest whinge in history". Close was quite right, of course, to bemoan the initial deleterious impact on the bowling arts imposed by fielding restrictions and that overriding obligation to deny runs, though it can hardly be said that the demise of the dibbly-dobbler wobbler has left coaches or spectators clamouring for the new Gavin Larsen. Vastly more disputatious was Close's assertion that the format "puts the batsman under a different kind of tension and pressure - even the best stroke-players find more is demanded of them than they can give. It is impossible for them to play naturally."

Twenty summers after he fulminated those sentiments to his ghost, Don Mosey, as we sat watching Yorkshire play Surrey at Headingley, Close's disgust remained as undimmed as that compassion for pie-flingers. "When a youngster comes into the side, rather than being able to express himself, he's thinking, 'God, I must save runs or I'll be taken off.' It's totally negative. The bowlers aren't thinking, 'Shall I try an outswinger this time?' They're thinking, 'I wonder what the batsman's going to do.'"

What jars, even now, is that those words reek of everything Close stood four-square against: narrow thinking, comfort zones, gauntlets spurned. Nor did it take his successors all that long to prove him wrong - or, for that matter, those of us inclined to agree with him then, yet who now anticipate the World Twenty20 with something refreshingly akin to childlike wonder. In time, the players, the bowlers especially, became the dictators: it was their adaptability and ingenuity that compelled new regulations, mostly to grant the poor unfortunate batsmen respite - some imaginative, many needless and fruitless.

Does this perennial reluctance to accord the shorter formats their due boil down to nothing more complex than that most English of diseases, snobbery?

The worst flaws you can identify in the average contemporary cricketer are sparse concentration and an aversion to self-restraint - not exactly uncommon lapses for a 21st-century human; that skill levels have risen, conversely, should be reasonably plain to anyone with at least one functioning eye and access to YouTube. Rely solely on containment in ODIs? Fool. Throw down the stumps from side-on? Child's play. Can't master a doosra, reverse-pull or two-gear bouncer? Shame on you.

Close came appreciably closer to prescience in 1989, offering a racing analogy to Ted Dexter following his fellow punter's rise to England "supremo": "If you took a racehorse, could be the best in the world, and you put it over a two-mile hurdle one day, a six-furlong sprint the next, a three-mile chase the next, then a mile-and-a-half middle-distance run the next, it'll wonder whether it's stood on its arse or its elbow." What Close failed to bargain for, however, was not just central contracts and workload management but the hunger to succeed in all formats, a direct product of the fiscal rewards made possible by the evolving tastes of the audience, yes, but also an upshot of fresh professional challenges.

It was the quest to arrest the generational dwindling of county crowds increasingly overwhelmed by leisure choices that begat one-day cricket and thence T20. Now even the Americans are trying to stimulate demand via a T20 league, which ought to please Close a wee bit: after all, he was inducted into the nation's Hall of Fame in 2010. In all other respects, one assumes, he is dismissive, expansively and expletively.

Which brings us to the crux: does this perennial reluctance to accord the shorter formats their due boil down to nothing more complex than that most English of diseases, snobbery? A ludicrous notion in Close's case, perhaps, given that he lost the Test captaincy, in essence, because he didn't go to the right school, yet the relatively indifferent media response to England's march up the ODI rankings makes it hard to think otherwise.

Admittedly, casting stones ill-behoves the once-devout cricket snob pounding this keyboard, one wont until about ten years ago to demean the shorter forms as "pyjama parties". All the same, it seems profoundly remiss, with the 50th anniversary of the final Gents v Players fixture just 72 hours away, not to remind younger readers that the forefathers of county cricket had no qualms about the c-word: they could have called their creation "professional" or - more honestly - "shamateur", but they plumped for "first-class". Some prejudices die harder than others.

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