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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on September 7, 2012, 12:24 GMT

    @clarke501 - "...would regard the winners of a global competition involving all the major teams at the same time and under the same conditions as the no 1 ODI side." Yes, but with a condition. I would give the winner of the W/Cup a 10 point bonus, that does not "erode" from the rankings until AFTER the following W/Cup. This would eliminate a scenario where an average side that strings together a freak series of wins being crowned #1.

  • Cricinfouser on September 5, 2012, 22:10 GMT

    Usual idiotic comments which bear no relation to the article. I see no evidence that the author has changed his opinion of ODIs on the basis of recent England performances. Sadly the mere fact that he is English apparently makes this misrepresentation acceptable. For what it's worth, I'd suggest that most cricket followers, irrespective of nationality, would regard the winners of a global competition involving all the major teams at the same time and under the same conditions as the no 1 ODI side. India are the holders of the World Cup. By definition, they are the top ODI team, irrespective of what the rankings say.

  • Jay on September 5, 2012, 22:03 GMT

    I think it's hilarious how the opinion of the English media and their supporters change every time England perform decently in a certain format other than test cricket. If England keep winning in T20s and ODIs, then those two formats become relevant. OH MY LORD ! This is insane. There was a time England were mediocre in ODIs unable to win a single match on a consistent basis. In fact they are still poor in ODI cricket whenever played away from home. However, to say that ODIs are relevant at a time when the goose laying golden eggs is about to die from exhaustion is irritating. There is absolutely no point in bickering about the validity of the 50 over game when national boards around the world use it to fill their coffers, scheduling meaningless 5/7 match series. It's BORING and unnecessary. Where are the cheerleaders of test cricket now ? Why not have a 5 match test series instead of all these useless ODIs ? This is where the point is missed by many journalists.

  • Sreejith on September 5, 2012, 19:29 GMT

    This same guy will tell ODI is not so important after Poms get whitewashed outside Britain

  • soham on September 5, 2012, 18:05 GMT

    Rob Steen is a sane voice in world cricket, I completely endorse his views. He is stating nothing but facts.

  • Dummy4 on September 5, 2012, 17:01 GMT

    ODI is the most challenging form of game bcz Tests only test a batsman's defence- A player with very limited repertoire of shorts can have a great test career.........similarly T20 only tests a batsman's attack - A player with very limited defence can be a great T20 player............................But ODI require a player to have good defense as well as full repertoire of strokes hence only a plyer with safe attacking strokes can have a succesful ODI career like Tendulkar, Viv Richards, De Villiers.......A great ODI player can be good in both tests & T20 like De Villiers but a T20 specialist cannot do well in tests like Raina & a Test specialist cannot do well in limited formats like Dravid had v low SR of 70 in ODI's

  • Him on September 5, 2012, 14:59 GMT

    England have indeed played some good ODI cricket in their last 10-12 games. But they have also been helped by some experimentation and rebuilding by their opponents like Australia and SA. Ultimately, it is their World Cup performance in 2015 that will tell us if they're really a top-class side (as they were in 1987 and 1991). PS: Rob, please get the facts right; England were never No. 1 in all 3 formats. They lost their #1 ranking in T20s at the same time that they became #1 in ODIs (the annual ratings refresh happened at the same time). SA are the 1st and only team to have ever been #1 in all 3 formats at the same time (although they lost their ODI #1 after 1 match).

  • Abhijeet on September 5, 2012, 10:48 GMT

    it is just stupid how the English opinion changes according to the performance of England team.....seriously....'ODIs: still necessary, no longer evil'......the point it play meaningful ODIs.....cut down bilateral ODIs.....

  • Dummy4 on September 5, 2012, 9:05 GMT

    Well the problem with these english editors is that they start praising a format when their teams start winning . Earlier when England were No.1 in Tests they were critisizing ODI as rubbish . England just doesn't deserve the numro uno spot in ODI .

  • Elliott on September 5, 2012, 8:52 GMT

    @Meety: thanks for the excellent summary. The fluidity of the rankings over the last few years is a good indicator of how close the top teams are, not that the rankings are useless. If a team was dominant like the WI or Aus teams of old the rankings wold show it soon enough. As it is, we have a lot of competitive, meaningful series between several well-matched, good-but-flawed teams.

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