April 28, 2013

Remove fielding restrictions in ODIs

It will prompt captains and bowlers to actively seek wickets rather than wait for pressure points to build

Tucked away at the bottom of part two of Shane Warne's soi-disant manifesto for Australian cricket, published back in February, was a suggestion beguiling in its simplicity. Moving away from advocating management positions for his former muckers to create a utopian Cricket Australia, Warne briefly turned his attention to a subject he does know something about: keeping the public entertained.

"It is time to de-regulate one-day cricket," he wrote. "No restrictions with the field, none, place the fielders anywhere you want, this will create so many options and the attacking captains and teams will win. The only law should be that no bowler can bowl more than ten overs."

Warne's point was that persistent tinkering with the one-day game - artifice posing as innovation - has left everyone confused. This is surely valid. While Warne is among those rare savants able to call cricket a simple game, in truth it is more complex than solving a Rubik's Cube in the dark. Between explaining the lbw law, pondering the capricious nature of swing (regular or reverse), and remembering the ten different methods of dismissal, need we ask supporters to contemplate the number of fielders on the leg side, or be aware of the latest point the batting Powerplay has to be taken?

Captains, however, should be asked to bend their minds around complexity. In a game without fielding restrictions, there would be fewer crutches to lean upon; no default deep point, or removal of slip. All-out defence would be an option in limited-overs cricket but, in reality, would it ever be contemplated? If there were eight or nine men on the boundary, ones and twos would be plucked at will, allowing batsmen to build confidence and momentum. Sixes - which are little more than a top-edge away these days - ignore all field placements, of course.

Fifty-over cricket, at its best, should be the equivalent of a Test in a day. Rather than settle for a formulaic Dosey Doe of attack and defence based around Powerplays, a captain and his bowlers should have to come up with their own strategies; wickets need not be merely a by-product of designated pressure points but something actively sought, as Warne suggests in his contention that attacking captains would benefit.

With the ability to set appropriate cover in the deep, more attacking catching options could be considered. One imagines that Michael Clarke, for instance, would thrive on the freedom. Spinners, too, would be offered the protection that they need, encouraged to flight the ball and risk being hit rather than becoming "one-dimensional": dartists rather than artists.

With ramp shots, upper cuts and helicopters, all complemented by modern anti-aircraft bats, scoring is a round-the-clock affair. In the interests of balance, and a genuine risk-reward contest between bat and ball, shouldn't the fielding team be able to tailor their plans accordingly?

One-day cricket has been subject to fielding restrictions since the 1992 World Cup (the last great 50-over tournament?) and this absolutist initiative is largely proposed with ODIs in mind. But the Laws of the game, which underpin all cricket, still contain the anachronistic stipulation on leg-side fielders behind square, brought in after Bodyline. In Twenty20, meanwhile, six-hitting is the basic imperative - and the team that hits the most usually wins - so why not increase the incentives to clear the boundaries by letting captains defend them as they wish?

It may be that minor tweaks would still be needed, such as a maximum limit on deep fielders at the death. But, if we were designing the game from scratch, gimmickry such as having two different Powerplay blocks (with different rules) would surely be dismissed on the ground of absurdity. The margins are full of scribbling; it is time for a clean piece of paper. And anyone wanting to argue against must list all current international fielding restrictions without needing to check.

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo