If not 50 or 20, what about 35?
Cricket is not perfect, neither would we want it to be. Match-ups are as likely to be exasperating as exhilarating. Fifty-over cricket has taken it in the neck for being out of date. "You're obsolete my baby / My poor old-fashioned baby / I said baby, baby, baby you're out of time" wrote Jagger and Richards, and T20 is the flared trouser of the day.
But T20 is not cricket in the true sense. T20 has escape clauses that allow mediocre talent to survive. Worse still, the best talent is in the wash with everyone else, restricted by overs and playing regulations that dumb down a greater game.
The series between Australia and Sri Lanka that was completed yesterday had little suspense but much interest. On occasions the ball swung - yes the cricket ball was swinging! - and batsmen were rooted in amazement. We're not talking Bob Massie or Wasim Akram here, we're talking Nuwan Kulasekara with his tidy medium-paced induckers, and Lasith Malinga with quirky round-arm outswingers. Australia were clueless in Brisbane and not much better in Adelaide or Sydney. Sri Lanka were hardly masters of their moment either. Thus, catches were taken at slip and lbws came from deliveries pitched on a good length. For a couple of the games, yorkers and slower balls were redundant. The balance between bat and ball was about right. It was the form of cricket in which bowlers go after wickets rather than claim them from the batsmen's obligation to score at eight an over.
Each game had an appeal. The first, in Melbourne, from Australia's batting onslaught and specifically from Phil Hughes' debut hundred in sweltering heat. The second, in Adelaide, from Sri Lanka's ongoing ability to fight back every time you write them off. The third from Australia's abject total of 74, on a lively but far from impossible Brisbane pitch, which was followed by a hash of a run chase that threatened humiliation for the Sri Lankans until the new face, Kushal Perera, dragged them over the line.
In Sydney we watched Australia stutter to 222 and then we watched a thick drizzle of rain for an hour or so. After that we thought we would watch the chase that Sri Lanka had briefly started, but incredibly the umpires abandoned the match. Apparently conditions were unsafe and unfair for the fielding side.
What nonsense. The outfield was damp, not waterlogged. A film of water covered the grass while the players warmed up but this same film of water was too dangerous to finish the match. Almost 30,000 people had paid to be there and they were treated disgracefully. Is cricket so precious that the crowds who support must suffer? Of course not. It's a game, for goodness' sake. If the ball gets wet, replace it with a dry one. What matters is that the people leave happy and are inclined to come again. It couldn't matter less that one team or another is at a minor disadvantage.
All international matches should be in the hands of the referee. Umpires have a vested interest in the players, though they cannot admit to it. They are part of the family, like discarded siblings hoping to find their way back to the bosom. They step on eggshells with powerful captains and take the more general decisions of ground, weather and light with a crutch at their side - whether it be a light meter, a colleague or a consensus. Match referees are former players of note, mostly. Ground, weather and light should be their baby.
All of which left Australia having to win in Hobart to square the series, an unlikely finale given the drubbing they handed out in the first match.
The big story in Australia right now is the rotation of players. Critics called the team that won in Melbourne the B team. The captain, George Bailey, defended his men and the policy with remarkable vigour, given it was nothing to do with him. Michael Clarke, who is a selector, was resting, rotated, or injured, depending on your take, but was not around to answer for the selectors. The administrators have turned to the phrase "informed player management" because the "r"-bomb is off limits.
The problem is that everyone has to explain themselves these days. Consequently we have brackets and clauses, and collective nouns such as "Team England" and "Cricket Australia"; they talk of the "group" not of the team. They precede answers with "probably" and follow them up with "so". Increasingly we have a new language of avoidance. Just tell it how it is. Say: "This is our team, the captain is injured, the fast bowler is knackered, we hope to have them back imminently." Explaining the detail never works. It is where the devil hides. If in doubt, say nowt.
The fact is, Australia are going through a funny period. Batsmen are thin on the ground and bowlers are injured daily. The search to identify the best cricketers for the demanding challenges ahead is complicated. In short, the selectors are having a look around but there are sensitivities, notably to the public, who want the best players for their buck, and the broadcasters who pay through the nose for an unpredictable product. Take account of these and pick the team to win the match. Nothing ever doused the fires of criticism like winning.
Clarke was injured again in Hobart - ankle this time not hamstring - thus Bailey was back in charge. Hughes made another hundred, this one a gem of an innings in its construction and pace. Australia held off a late Angelo Mathews charge and levelled the series 2-2. The improved Hughes is having a good summer. He has the happy knack of making runs come what may and understands that 50-over batting is an art in itself. During the coming months, Indian pitches and English swing bowlers will tell just how much he has improved.
A friend of mine, a pro golfer who has had a lifelong affair with cricket, sent a text during Sri Lanka's pursuit of 247. It was the period in the middle when singles tick over, the period that is the eye of the 50-over storm. It read: "50 overs… first 10 dash, next 30 cook dinner, last 10 sit tight for a result. Bit like basketball." I replied that I liked 50-over cricket because it had a natural ebb and flow and that it had more appeal than the one-paced 20-over game. He came back: "Wouldn't know, never watched a T20 in my life. 3 forms of the game can't survive. 35 overs seems about right to me."
If - and I say if because I'm not convinced yet - cricket is indeed cannibalising itself, 35 overs is a way to go. There is just enough time to be bowled out, which is crucial to the fabric of the sport, and not quite enough time to throttle back during the predictable middle overs. Maybe you play with two new balls and have a first 15-over period where, say, three fielders have to be in an attacking position and only three can be outside the 30-yard ring. After that you resort to the regulations of T20 as we know them. Urgency but not disrespect: the best of both worlds perhaps?
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK