Time 50-over cricket is nurtured and sustained
Despite the comfortable margin of victory for Australia at Old Trafford on Sunday, it was a good weekend for 50-over cricket. Indeed, it has been a good northern hemisphere summer.
The Champions Trophy, once the game's white elephant, was both absorbing and, at times, electrifying. The best team, India, won it and the next best team, England, lost the final, of their own volition. Basking in the reflected sunshine, the ICC members are reconsidering their decision to can the tournament. The players are its biggest fans, preferring a shorter, elite event to the more laboriously structured World Cup. The English spectators appreciated the natural rhythms of cricket that remain within the 50-over distance, and the Asian immigrant supporters gave the grounds an enthusiastic and edgy atmosphere.
In Manchester on Sunday, Australia played with great skill, albeit against half an England side. Michael Clarke scored at a run a ball without much risk, while George Bailey applied his strengths to the pitch and the opponent. Neither used T20 methods, opting instead for the time-honoured principles of straight bats and hard running between the wickets before hitting clean boundaries when set.
Then Mitchell Johnson bowled really fast, searching for wickets instead of economy. He has become a good bet for the first Ashes Test of the winter in Brisbane and a shoo-in for Perth, where he has run through England and South Africa previously. Close examination can reveal the work he has done with Dennis Lillee on his run-up, point of delivery and follow-through - a fair bit then! But the best bit was his speed, as Jonathan Trott will testify after he fenced to the wicketkeeper.
Fifty-over cricket asks more questions than T20. Rumours of its death are exaggerated. The T20 game dictates to the players, who have found thrilling ways to take advantage of the limited exposure time, but there is less need for batsmen to preserve their wickets or for bowlers to look to capture them. It means the cricket has fewer dimensions. This is a fact, not a criticism, and is evidence in the case for retaining cricket's coat of many colours.
In contrast, the 40-over game, which is still played by the counties in England, is betwixt and between - neither modern nor retro. Invented as a Sunday afternoon frolic in the late 1960s, at a time when much of the cricket, televised in black and white, truly did appear colourless, it was first taken around the land by the International Cavaliers, who were the Harlem Globetrotters of their genre. The TCCB immediately saw its worth and used it to revitalise the ailing county game, selling television rights to the BBC and filling grounds for the four-hour period between Sunday lunch and high tea. It was the T20 of its day, altering technique and changing methods, while still bringing a simplicity and speed to the game that attracted a new audience.
Forty-five years on much of that attraction has gone, beaten to a pulp by the T20 phenomenon. Saturday's Yorkshire Bank 40 semi-final was attended by just 4500 people. The Ageas Bowl echoed in its disapproval despite Hampshire's consistently impressive one-day performances these past few years. More people came to the second semi-final at Trent Bridge but Somerset barely put up a fight. The competition has the feeling of a financial necessity rather than a cricketing opportunity. The quicker the counties return to 50 overs, the better.
Last week, the ECB announced the international schedule for next year and the retro in it is worth applauding. For the first time this millennium, the 50-over game will help launch the summer. If it is to retain self-importance, it must be in the spotlight. Fifty overs per side is the perfect introduction after a winter and pretty much certain to sell out because of it.
Preceded by a lone T20 in mid-May, there will then be five ODIs against Sri Lanka, followed by two Test matches. Though only two Tests in any series is not ideal, the early-season schedule provides a nice balance to the cricket with the caveat that as many as five one-day matches threatens overkill. After Sri Lanka come India, who will engage in a full five-Test series before playing five one-day games and a T20. By the time those 50-over matches start, everyone will have had enough. Fifty-over cricket must precede Test matches and T20 if it is to win back the place it once held in the global affection. Fewer matches would mean a harder ticket, the corollary of which is greater demand, but with a World Cup on the horizon there are more one-dayers pending than is good for them or for the game at large.
Of all the full ICC members, it is England who are doing the most to preserve Test match cricket by promoting its value, playing a lot of it, and performing well. Sky Television has dedicated a whole channel - Sky Ashes - to its name this summer and saturated the viewer with insight, analysis and entertainment that has begun at 10am and finished at 11 at night after two highlight shows of varying style, comment and content. Hats of to an organisation that continues to support both the commercial and inherent interests of British sport.
As I write, the England top order is batting with great difficulty in the third 50-over match of five against Australia. In the damp, cold conditions, the ball has moved a little off the seam. The history of the game boasts few more naturally gifted batsmen than Kevin Pietersen and the upper end of international cricket is his stage. But he can't take a trick against the Aussies right now. Johnson is bowling at some lick and Clarke has set attacking fields. After selling Michael Carberry short with a bad call for a single, Pietersen has spliced a pull shot into the hands of square leg. Though Joe Root came to the wicket, Trott took most of Johnson and had to ride his luck. Clarke continued to attack and every ball held the audience captive.
The reason for this is clear. Examination of mind and technique is the fabric of the game. Such vignettes crystallise why 50-over cricket must be nurtured and sustained. All the skills are on view and the great utopia - that often clichéd balance between bat and ball - is set fair. Much as T20 tickles many a fancy, it cannot showcase all the riches of the greatest game, and for that alone, a species comprising a minimum of 50 overs per side must not become endangered.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK