June 5, 2014

Fifty-over cricket shouldn't become an afterthought

One-day internationals are the filling in cricket's sandwich, but the game's rulers are giving it a dull taste

The extreme result swings in the Royal London one-day series that finished in Birmingham on Tuesday night tell us something about the 50-over game. There is so much of it that the players have learnt to conserve their energy. The message is that if a game has gone, don't fight to drag it back, save yourself for the next one. Only in a decider will a team behind the eight ball pull out the stops to reverse the momentum.

There is a parallel here with baseball that is worth considering. Pro baseballers play most days of the season and the matches are all five- or seven-headers on consecutive nights. The notion of resurrecting a lost cause after the sixth inning is relatively unknown because the muscle strain and mental energy are best saved for a fresh start tomorrow. Tennis is going this way too. Four or five-love down in the fourth set and the older, wiser players will reserve what they have for the fifth.

This summer there are five one-day games each against Sri Lanka and India, along with a couple of T20s. I wonder how long England can keep picking the best players in all formats. I wonder further if each format of the game should have separate selectors and coaches. This coming winter, England play seven one-day games in Sri Lanka before Christmas and then are part of a long triangular tournament in Australia after Christmas, before the World Cup takes over in February and March. Then, at the beginning of April, they head to the Caribbean for three Tests. Within a week of returning from Antigua, there are two Tests against New Zealand, along with five one-day games and a T20. Immediately after that it is the Ashes again, with a further five one-dayers and a T20 against the Australians. It is exhausting thinking about it. Just imagine playing. Then imagine the training, travelling, media responsibilities, sponsor's demands and public expectation.

The one-day game is losing its lustre because of the overkill. Not one of the five matches against Sri Lanka was a sell-out. In four of the five games there were enough empty seats for the ECB, and the rest of the world, to worry. England has long been a safe bet for ticket sales, given the small grounds and vast population to fill them. But it is wearing thin.

Cricket has become a hostage to the 50-over varietal because the gulf between the five-day game and T20 is so vast. If the 50-over game was abandoned, those two formats on their own would divide player and spectator. In the short term, Test cricket would be exposed as outdated by the game's "new" participants and audience, and in the long term, T20 - the lowest possible common denominator - would almost certainly bring down the sport as we know it. Ghastly phrase that it is, 50-over cricket is the filling in cricket's sandwich, but the game's rulers are giving it a dull taste.

Marketers promote the hell out of T20 but barely nod to the 50-over version. One-day cricket has a place at the table if it is the first course of the summer, the one that brings the game back into the consciousness of the fan. A new season's marketing opportunity is not to be wasted. A maximum of three matches per series is plenty, ensuring that tickets are always at a premium. Test matches should be the main course of any arrangement between countries, and T20 the dessert. Arguably the best distance for short-form cricket is now 30 overs per side but we are too far down the T20 road, so the 50-over game has to stay and be given due care and attention. Make it special and it can survive. Leave it to tread water and the inevitable decline will see it turn from a once-vibrant spectator sport to a commercial excuse and a television-schedule filler.

Back to England's time table. Can Alastair Cook really play all this cricket? Can Ian Bell, Stuart Broad or Jimmy Anderson? If the captain were not the captain, would he be in the team at all? Is it simply a case of Cook and Bell being too similar? Are England so short on batting firepower, not at home in May perhaps, but on firm, dry pitches abroad, that opposing teams play them like fish on the end of their line? Recent history suggests this is the case. Talking with Michael Vaughan in the commentary box, we came up with a World Cup side that included three from these four and then had options in those three positions for the run-of-the-mill series that are thrust upon the players season after season.

Arguably the best distance for short-form cricket is now 30 overs per side but we are too far down the T20 road, so the 50-over game has to stay and be given due care and attention

It read: Alex Hales, Ian Bell, James Vince, Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler, Ravi Bopara, Ben Stokes, Chris Jordan, Stuart Broad, James Tredwell, and James Anderson, with Samit Patel the option to Stokes and Bopara, depending on conditions. Gary Ballance, Moeen Ali and Joe Root were batting options; Steve Finn and Harry Gurney were bowling options. David Willey is an allrounder to watch.

There is a bit of fear factor there and a nice blend of old and new. Buttler simply has to bat higher. Ask the opponent. This has become a game for extroverts. Batsmen need something carefree in their soul, while bowlers need immense courage allied to an understanding that the game is not fair. With that, they can go forward. Without it, the demons will soon occupy and destroy.

The side we chose may not be good enough to win the World Cup in Australia but it has a more modern interpretation than the one to hand on Tuesday night. England are in a 50- over time warp, led by the conditions of their own land and spawned by a county game that has treated it lightly. Get with it!

Sri Lanka won the series because they are a better team by some distance. Lasith Malinga is among the three or four best bowling finishers one-day cricket has seen. Nuwan Kulasekara is a street-smart sidekick. The Sri Lankans preyed upon England's infuriating uncertainty against spin, and Sachithra Senanayake - whatever one may think about his action - licked his lips each time Angelo Mathews chucked him the ball. Add in an array of wristy, skilful and powerful batsmen and it only needed the mental switch turned on for the runners-up in the last World Cup to confirm their superiority.

Malinga, like Muttiah Muralitharan before him, speaks loudly for Sri Lankan cricket and most especially for the unorthodoxy that makes so many of those players marvellous attractions. By nature, the English are shackled and the Sri Lankans are set free. Now that the island has found some peace, more cricketers will emerge from the hidden corners of the north and north-east, and that means more talent that is sure to express itself. When Vaughan pushed James Vince, the Hampshire batsman, for inclusion in the team above, he said that England should stop analysing downsides in the judgement of a cricketer and start referencing the upside. Clearly, the Sri Lankans do just this. The lesson is clear to see.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on June 8, 2014, 20:59 GMT

    @ Cricketpissek yes its true Ashes Cricket is the be all and end all of cricket in England. But also because England is a multi sport country with King Football ruling the roost in interest. England's sports fans are divided up between Football, Rugby, Sailing, Formula1, Badminton, Tennis, Cycling Athletics etc. Add to that England public and youth are not as out doorsei as Australia for example due to the weather for a good chunk of the year with only a fraction who participate in professional sports, it is not surprising that cricket ranks somewhere close to the bottom in interest with 50 over cricket etc. You're right interest in cricket in England is at its peak during the ashes contests every two years. The inbetween contests just get a passing mention. Most people in England don't care much about the England Cricket team or cricket for that matter except the few die hard cricket fans. The England Football team however is a different story. So ashes is the only thing I'm afraid.

  • Dummy4 on June 6, 2014, 13:24 GMT

    I think part of the reason for the empty seats is the negative brand of cricket England have played recently (slow scoring, boring the opposition out, etc). They also, it seems to me, treat ODI's as "test trials". I wouldn't (quite) go as far as separate selectors, but ODI's and tests require different skills (tests require more specialists and ODI's more generalists, for one thing). A top 4 of Cook, Bell, Ballance and Root might be OK in tests, but it simply doesn't work in ODI's. Not enough power to find the boundary regularly. I see no real reason for Cook to play ODI's

    In an ODI, I think ideally at least 2 of the top 4 should be capable of hitting regular boundaries.

  • Dummy4 on June 6, 2014, 4:54 GMT

    Dear Mr. Mark Nicolas,

    I believe the reason for the low crowd participation had nothing to do with the 50 over game fading away, but was a result of England's poor run in performance since last winters ashes series. The best example of that the ODI game has not died yet was the recently concluded Asia Cup. The brand of cricket played and crowd participation throughout the tournament was great. Other than when this entire Mankad deal that took place during this current series, even when the crowd came in to watch the matches, you seldom heard the English supports cheer their team other than just the clapping. However the smaller Sri Lankan crowd were making enough noise the keep the atmosphere going around the ground.

    The Englishmen need to find a way to liven up their supporters at the venues. Maybe you would see more people come in then, at the least to have fun than watch England get pummeled by other teams.

  • Dummy4 on June 6, 2014, 4:37 GMT

    The argument of different selection committees for differemt formats is illogical because when a selection is made, it is not only keeping in mind that particular series, but the future tours and other formats as well. There will be a clear discord in the selections if different committees are set up. Rather, I would suggest one committee with chosen specialists from each format. Also, could rain and pricing have been a deterrent against crowd build up? The reason why you see good crowds in India for odi is that there are a lot of stadiums across the country, so each ground rarely gets more than one game per year! Maybe England can give more grounds the license to host internationals?

  • Soy on June 6, 2014, 4:31 GMT

    No real surprises England lost, they are one of the worst ODI nations going around. How many World Cups have you had?

    Here's an idea - pick actual players who smack the ball around (Buttler going well) and bowlers who are fast.

    Oh wait, you don't have any fast bowlers and Buttler is about the only player you have with any flair across your 18 teams.

    The headline reads: YOU WOULDN'T HAVE WON ANYWAY.

    Haha - no spinners at all, Swann's career permanently tarnished (29+ average is also very middling).

    Where's all this depth you all raved about during your 10 minute golden era, whereby you got to about 3rd in the world.

  • Dummy4 on June 5, 2014, 20:57 GMT

    Maybe all the players are as bored rigid as most of the English viewing public by the seemingly interminable ream of pointless matches. Has the ODI series finished? Phew, thank the Lord for that....People won't be interested in 50 over cricket just because the ECB think and say that they should be....the format is garbage, the "product" is naff and most English fans just ain't interested, pure and simple....

  • Dummy4 on June 5, 2014, 20:28 GMT

    The challenge countries have of providing competitive in three formats is too much for all of them, except maybe India who have the human and financial resources to deal with them. This means that despite everything that boards and captains say inevitably countries have in their collective sub conscious chosen their preferred formats. England, Australia and South Africa seem to lean towards test while other sides go the limited overs. The exception here may be India. The reasons for choosing are varied but i strongly sense Australia's and Eng's bias towards Test is historical. For other teams its probably a mixture of economic survival and also where their best players strength. I am sure WI and NZ would love to perform better at test level but Gayle, MacCullum and co are all explosive limited overs players and its better to succeed in one format then none at all.

  • Ranil on June 5, 2014, 20:12 GMT

    The main reason for the fall in attendance is the dismal weather Mark are you writing from a warm chair in Australia. No one would buy a ticket in advance to go to a match unless there is good weather forecast. All along they were disappointing forecasts and I'm really surprised all the games went to full distance strangely. In the summer fans will buy tickets for all the games in advance to enjoy the sun whatever the results & they will buy for many games in one go which will never happen in the early summer. I just had to content with going to only one game because forecasts were rain rain & rain. The Best thing to improve the attendance is to push the early games more &

  • Anthony on June 5, 2014, 16:59 GMT

    I like the team selected to a point. Cook like Trott is leaving the incoming batsmen with too much to do in the latter overs and is rightly excluded. Cook should only play Test Match cricket as he is extremely good, if not brilliant in that format. I do not rate Gurney at all and predict he will not be able to maintain any form in the long term at international level on all formats. The same applies to Bopara and surprisingly to a lesser extent, Jordan, but hope that all three players will prove me wrong. England need to find a spinner or two as Tredwell appears to be a stop gap selection until a young one emerges from county cricket. Anderson is, of course, an automatic selection for all formats.The rest appear to be good selections.

  • Dimuthu on June 5, 2014, 16:50 GMT

    Was discussing this very topic with a colleague (in London, I'm Sri Lankan born). He is the typical English cricket fan who thinks Ashes cricket is the be all and end all. T20 is exciting enough and over in 3hrs, so he enjoys a bit of that. England has NEVER enjoyed 50 over cricket. Fact. Not sure if not winning the World Cup is a cause or effect for this apathy. He said something interesting too. Although cricket is allegedly the 2nd most popular sport in the world, in England the cricket world cup is not even considered a "proper" world cup! For the guys here, the World Cup means either Football (obviously) or Rugby. Cricket's "world cup" to them is the Ashes. With this attitude, 50 over cricket will never gain popularity here. Mark's doomsday predictions are mostly valid for England. Asia, SA, and Australia still very much enjoy the 50 over game, so I wouldn't worry too much.

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