January 31, 2014

Forty overs is one-day cricket's future

It's the ideal amount of time to pack in plenty of action while also giving players a chance to construct innings and making for a better spectator experience

Crowe: Time for the ODI game to evolve

As we all consider the changing nature of the game's hierarchy (or should that be oligarchy?), the future of Test cricket and the effect of T20 globally, should we not stop to consider the middle sibling, the one-day game? The evolution of one-day cricket needs to continue to march on, and to the right beat. At present it looks as though it's pitching a touch, droning a little, gasping at times. It's not always sure of itself. Of all the formats, the one-day game has been constantly battling a personality crisis.

Internationally it started in the early 1970s (following initial success in county cricket) with contests of between 35 and 55 overs, all in one long day, using up all the daylight available. Then it moved to 60 overs a side, and after about a decade, dropped to 50 overs, a duration it has held since, covering seven World Cups.

For the next World Cup, to be held in Australasia, the format will remain the same, yet from that point on, the game should consider another natural evolution. First, this constant tinkering with the rules must stop. The present 50-over version (number 2387, by my count) is out of control. The Powerplay rules and field restriction are utter madness and soul-destroying to all kinds of captains and bowlers, spinners especially. The constant tweaking and searching has to cease.

It is one thing to react to a bad idea, of which there have been many wrapped around the one-day game in recent times; it's another to throw insanely bad karma into the mix as well. As T20 has removed the fiddle in the middle, so has one-day cricket tried to remove the often boring drag by adding funky Powerplays (at one stage, a few years back, bowlers were grudgingly forced to choose when to have a five-over Powerplay), and limit field-setting options, only to destroy courage and skill for the sake of more jolly entertainment, or for committees to be seen to be clever. Sorry, but it's a bloody dog's breakfast. Just ask every single captain in the game today, starting with MS Dhoni.

One of the great premises for introducing one-day cricket in England in the late '60s and T20 in 2003 was allowing time for fans to watch the spectacle in the late afternoon and twilight, in particular at the ground. As television started to broadcast the 40-over Sunday League in the '70s, a bigger audience was found watching from home. This has grown astronomically since. Yet we must continue to encourage spectators to go to the venues, for without those bums on seats, the players in the middle feel incomplete. When that happens, we start to defeat the purpose of sport.

Year after year, time on the clock became more and more precious, while cricket stayed more and more difficult to follow throughout its duration. So it evolved, and rightly so. As the 21st century beds in, it is time to ensure all is right again.

Having three formats is a great strength of cricket, as well as a complication, yet it works as it caters to different tastes and markets and covers all demographics and cultures. But the 50-over match is fast becoming a cricket design that doesn't fit, like the 60-over version before it. A normal 50-over game lasts seven hours, with a 40-minute interval. Throw in the time taken to travel to the venue, get seated, and the slow after-match escape, and overall we are talking a lazy nine hours or more of committing oneself, from go to whoa. That is not sustainable for honest, hard-working folk anymore, in duration, or even style. It definitely doesn't suit a young family outing.

What is the new ideal time frame for one-day cricket to keep itself relevant, and distant enough from T20, retaining a cultured game in which innings can be built and spells can be prolonged, yet catering to the fans' attention span? If a T20 match is nearly three hours, plus the before, the break and the after-match - around four and a half hours in all - then perhaps a 40-over match is the best duration: under six hours of compelling play to satisfy all.

As I watched the second ODI, in Hamilton, the other day, a rain-reduced match of 42 overs, I saw it clearly. It was the perfect amount of entertainment: plenty of action, a period of building, a blazing finish to each innings.

Then I went to the third ODI, in Auckland, and worked in the commentary box. Despite the fact that it was a pulsating match, ending in a remarkable tie, it was an exhausting, draining day, finishing late into the night. I would have preferred to arrive at 4pm, when the heat was out of the day, and enjoy a marvellous extended evening session of fun cricket. When I finally got home, after 11.15pm (having left at midday for a 2pm start), I was absolutely spent. The adrenaline of the last-ball drama was quickly consumed by the utter enervation of it all. Without question, in my tired mind, the 50-over game is out of date and ripe for the picking.

Let's see the one-day game settle into 40-over mode. Remove the gunk in the middle, keep it simple, stupid, and hey presto, every captain will be positive about the format that is still the life blood of our fine game

Ultimately here is the crux. By knocking off ten overs per innings, we remove the unnecessary Powerplays and field restrictions, the crap, the not-required, the needless scaffolding. As we aren't reducing the number of wickets that need to fall, the game automatically speeds up, removing the drag and exhaustion. The benefit of going back to an extra fielder outside the circle is restored, and so is the bowlers' confidence that they are competing on an even playing field. Oh, and we can go back to one ball per innings.

As I posed this notion (I also did so in my book published last year) to a friend and top player, he challenged me with: "But what about the records?" Good question, that. Without hesitation I replied that in the 43 years of countless versions of the one-day game played, no records have been adjusted. Clearly those playing now enjoy scoring at a faster pace. Hundreds are easily completed in 35 overs these days due to ground size and incredible bat technology, so in essence this reduction of overs should equal it up to the game we adored in the 1980s. One-day records? A side plate, surely, to the long-form statistics. It's not an issue.

The time factor benefits a huge majority, apart from the advertisers, who lose a bit of fat. That is the only downside, but frankly, in the long-term they will win anyway - the one-day game, refreshed and reinvigorated, will surge into the light with a bright new future. Less always becomes more.

So after the World Cup next year, let's hope the ICC shows a new version of itself: a smarter, wiser, mature version of its hopefully rejuvenated soul, thinking about the fans first and not its hip pocket. Let's see it settle the one-day game into 40-over mode, remove the gunk in the middle, keep it simple, stupid, and hey presto, every captain will be positive about the format that is still the life blood of our fine game. If not after the World Cup, then the one-day game will evolve within the next four years. It's inevitable.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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