April 14, 2013

Make the shortest format two-innings a side

Bring Test cricket's great strength to cricket's money-making format

The doomsday scenario is all too visible. Within a decade or two, should those entrusted with running our precious game carry on careering down their current treacherous slope, T20 will be the only game in town, rippling with cheap thrills and uniform skills: McDonald's without even the pretence of nutritional value. We might as well call it bashball. To go forward we need to go back to basics.

Cricket hasn't always been a two-innings game, but at the risk of being branded a fascist, I would say the best of it is. Even if we set aside the dramatic possibilities, the very fact that everyone, in theory, gets a second chance is justification enough. Without wishing to get too philosophical on your bottoms, I can't think of a worthier message for any cultural activity to send.

Trouble is, attention spans are not what they were, so seducing new disciples is a big ask and a vast task. If Test cricket is to have any prospect of long-term survival, therefore, the shorter incarnations should, ideally, serve two functions: 1) Make pots of money, thereby funding the less punter-friendly format, and 2) Replicate as much of the latter as possible. As things stand, only the first of these is being fulfilled.

On one blindingly obvious level this should mean dispensing with all restrictions on the number of overs per bowler, always a distortion too far for this observer. Even more telling would be two innings per team.

It is hard not to suspect that, sooner or later, three formats will become two, so why not do what all struggling businesses do and opt for a merger?

A 30- or 40-over affair, with each team entitled to two separate 15- or 20-over innings, would placate those for whom the ten-over slog is a cartoon too far, while giving newcomers a feel for the intricacies, variations, tactics and strategies that make the five-day play the planet's finest anachronism, not to mention a potent antidote to all this fast-food, instant-gratification codswallop.

Granted, such contests might consume more time than a T20 match, but the enhanced number of gaps to sneak in adverts should in no way dismay the broadcasters, the tails that so efficiently wag the dog. Nor would it preclude single-innings fixtures.

Ultimately the number of overs is less relevant than the principle. Doubling the number of innings might not necessarily double the fun, but it could certainly go a long way towards convincing the coming generations that, as with life itself, playing and watching cricket is not about quick fixes and emotional extremes. It is about treating those twin impostors with equanimity, savouring the subtlety and variety, defying time's stormtroopers - and grabbing those second chances.

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

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