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