Make 50 overs special again
There was something oddly relevant about England's abject cricket at Trent Bridge on Wednesday evening. Greed forced the game into the schedule - the summer's 14th of 17 limited-overs internationals; there are still three T20s to come - and that greed cost the public the occasion they deserved for their unwavering support.
Everything was in place, even the weather for goodness' sake, but sunshine was the only bang the good folk of Nottingham got for their buck. The England batting was dreadful and the match, bar a brief period by James Anderson with the new ball, a non-event. Too much of a good thing never did anyone any good, and boy, do we get too much of one-day cricket. So there is relevance in this defeat.
The greed in the schedule is the preference of one-day cricket over Test matches. The corridors of power keep telling us that the primacy of Test cricket is of overriding import, but the evidence does not support the claim. Eight short-form games against South Africa, only three Tests. Four against West Indies to go with three Tests - that's better. But five one-dayers against Australia - what were they about, what did they mean? Where is the logic in this planning? The performance of the players, though indefensible in itself, seemed to be saying enough now, enough.
Alastair Cook's face was a picture when the tenth wicket fell. A picture of confusion. We did not see Andy Flower's face because he was elsewhere, exhausted of mind and feet up far away. It has been a demanding three months. First Kevin Pietersen's show-stopping retirement from the 50-over game, then the aggro over resting James Anderson from the Edgbaston Test against West Indies, then humiliation at The Oval by the South Africans.
We are warming up now. Next came the post-Headingley Pietersen outburst, followed by the texts about the captain and the sender's axing, then defeat at Lord's and the loss of the top dog world ranking. Wait, there is more. Next came goodbye Andrew Strauss, hello Alastair Cook; then another tranche of Pietersen (they met on Saturday, we are told); before the false light of 50-over victories at The Oval and Lord's. And now this thumping. Just hope that Flower did not watch the Trent Bridge game, because if he did we might find him in the Thames with lead boots on.
In some ways, then, it has been a wretched year. Perhaps we should have spotted the loosening of the wheels in the Middle East, where the newly anointed Champions of the World were hammered in all three Tests by Pakistan. Then again, England have won 12 of 14 completed 50-over matches this year. Having watched last night's shambles, explaining how is tricky. Pietersen kicked it off with a couple of hundreds in the UAE; West Indies were pretty ordinary earlier this summer, and Australia were out of season in July. That helped.
Arguably England are four players short of the best team. Stuart Broad is on sabbatical, Matt Prior is ignored, Jonny Bairstow is keen to the point of bursting, KP is in SW3 en famille. It was commendable to outplay South Africa in two matches and much thought went into doing so. It is equally commendable to finish the year at the top of the ICC rankings. But there is a lot of unravelling left. England's cricket has gone mediocre of late. Some common sense is required to bring it back to scratch.
Moving on. Tweet tweet goes the country after these humdrum contests that finished without a winner. Fifty-over cricket is the frenzied theme of Twitter exchanges across the land. We're over it, they are shouting. Bring on the global phenomenon that is T20 and leave it at that. Test cricket survives and T20 will thrive.
I do not buy it. The quality of the cricket makes the format worthwhile or otherwise. Too many games and not enough importance attached to them is the reason for the limited interest in the 50-over game. Even the players have tired of the process and thus pay it less attention. It is no coincidence that many a team that wins the Test series goes on to lose the one-day games.
A challenge over the best of three matches is ample and should be played as the warm-up to a Test series, the main event. These shorter, sharper series should count towards World Cup qualification and seeding, and therefore be played with meaning. Ideally, 50-over cricket should be the first flower of spring, the return of the game into a summer's consciousness or the first format back after time away for such diversions as the Olympic Games or football championships. Offering a taste of both the longest and shortest form of the game, the 50-over game is the one to whet appetites.
Tickets should be hard to find in countries other than England, where the small grounds and relatively large populations tend to guarantee full houses. World Cups must be pre-eminent, not overshadowed by bi-annual T20 tournaments. There is good reason for the theory of supply and demand. Make the 50-over game special again by making it less accessible and interest will return for both spectator and player. Cricket can and should sustain three formats. Working out what goes where, when and how often, is the key to its diverse appeal in the future.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK