June 13, 2013

Life in the 50-overs dog yet

The calendar can, and ought to, have room for championships in all three of cricket's international formats

I like 50-over cricket, always have. Going back, there is an admission here to preferring 55 overs per team, and 60 as it was long ago, but those formats are lost in the mist of time. Watching the Champions Trophy from afar - not addicted but at various moments quite riveted - It is fun to hear the score for the first time and some days not even to know what the game is before turning on the radio or television.

Some of the batting is amazing - amazingly bad in Pakistan's case and amazingly good in the case of India. The bats help. You cannot begin to believe how fabulous the bats are until you use one: balanced - almost weightless in a way - yet full-bodied with an attractive narrow grain and gently arcing bow that sits encouragingly beneath the eye. With one of these in your hand, most things appear possible and many are achieved.

The 50-over game has a bad press. Dated and dull are the main complaints. This is because the middle overs have become predictable and nail-biting finishes are few and far between. But an important part of cricket is patience. Cricket is slow, you just have to wait a while between the thrills. Some of us prefer Holbein's brushstrokes to Roy Lichtenstein's ben-day dots. It is who we are.

And I'm not sure about the close-finish thing. Do people buy tickets for a close finish? To a degree perhaps, but more likely they buy for the event, for the privilege of the occasion. They pay for the chance to see heroes and to allow the varied attractions of cricket to touch their senses: the elegance and charm, for example, that sit so precariously alongside the power and brutality. Cricket is neither always fair nor kind but it has generosity in its gift. Essentially cricket is a celebration of much that we appreciate in our lives, and over time this celebration washes over us. A problem faced by T20 is that the wash stays pretty cool; during a 50-over game, the body has time to be warmed through.

The Champions Trophy already looks a success. Crowds are good, though that is typical of England, where the grounds are small and the population diverse. The eight best teams in the world are on view and the hosts are in with a shout, which keeps the media alive. The commentators are holding their nerve until the crescendo moments, when all hell lets loose, which is as it should be: ebb and flow, like the game itself.

National identity, as against the tribalism that invades football, is evident enough at each match, but the tensions are different of course. For some, cricket represents justification; for others, only bragging rights. England's crunching victory over Australia has prompted a viral trail of mockery that has moved Australians to talk of nothing more than a flesh wound. In their hearts they must be worried sick because their team appeared feeble. Victory over New Zealand yesterday might have lit the inner flame. As it is, a single point and a disciplinary issue have not improved the situation. "Intensity" has become a sporting cliché but it is useful when trying to explain what Australia were missing against England. The younger players looked terrified, which is a complete 360 from a decade ago. How Michael Clarke deals with the psychological trauma is a fascination in itself.

All that really matters is the quality of the players and the balance between bat and ball. Keep a check on these, insure against overkill, and bring some focus to the global carvanserai

This is the last Champions Trophy, which is a pity. The official reason for closing it down is to make way for a World Test Championship, but it is the biennial World T20 tournament that has jammed the diary. How many times must observers bleat about less and more? The power brokers should stop thinking about returns and concentrate on the product. Cricket is pliable. Its many formats and styles are a strength. Rather than diminish, they should plan to expand by offering the fans more choices, more to love. No one style of the game is more valuable than other, though Test cricket is the essential point of reference.

There is a perfectly acceptable annual rotation of a World Test Championship, the Champions Trophy, T20 World Cup, and the World Cup proper (over 50 overs per side) with some deregulation from the present Powerplay compromise. In general, a few sacrifices would have to be made, which is no bad thing given there is so much cricket that means so little to so many people.

All that really matters is the quality of the players and the balance between bat and ball. Keep a check on these, insure against overkill, and bring some focus to the global carvanserai. It cannot be beyond the means of man to orchestrate a better schedule for all. One that takes into account the coats of many colours worn by followers of the game. Perhaps the recent fallout in India will lead to contrition and, with time, a sense of responsibility for the game at large, not just the one played at home.

Meantime rejoice in MS Dhoni, who leads the team playing the brightest and best cricket of the tournament so far. On stage the other night, he was asked about the pressure of playing for India. He answered with this: "When we win a warm-up match, it is just a warm-up match. When we lose a warm-up match, all of India wants to know why!"

He is about the best one-day cricketer you think of. To recall a few, Sachin Tendulkar, Adam Gilchrist, Viv Richards, Ricky Ponting, Javed Miandad, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Joel Garner were not bad either. Come to think of it, bat them in that order with Dhoni positioned either side of Imran, depending on the where the game is heading. So now we need a fast bowler and a spinner... hmmm. Curtly Ambrose or Glenn McGrath would do nicely, as would one of Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan. A heck of team, though I can already hear you looking to do better!

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK