March 31, 2015

Attack breathes new life into the ODI

The World Cup showed us that the format doesn't have to be dreary. That bowling sides can be as innovative and aggressive as batting sides

The unplayables: Australia's fast bowlers © Getty Images

Every sport needs its milestones, a way of reckoning the journey through time. They are part of every one of the heartland Olympic sports. Every four years each sport is redefined and sometimes reinvented. Ben Johnson and Usain Bolt, in their different ways, recalibrated the 100 metres.

There was a time when football could measure itself in World Cups, each four years marking the emergence or the peaking of different players, different teams, different styles, different tactics. But after France and Zinedine Zidane in 1998 the thing began to wane as club football became the dominant form of the game.

It seemed that things had reached a rather dreary stasis with the cricket World Cup: a quadrennial same old same old. But now, as the 2015 tournament sinks down below the horizon, the early signs are that the last six weeks will change cricket.

Before the World Cup, the ODI offered neither the glamour of T20 nor the deeper satisfactions of Test cricket. It was neither one thing nor the other.

It was all about bits-and-pieces players, defensive fields, defensive bowling, gentle accumulation of runs during the middle overs, wickets in hand, building a platform for a bit of hitting in the closing overs. It was based on the notion that if you didn't need ten wickets to win a match it was a waste of time trying to take any.

Fielding sides continued to attack even in the middle stages of an innings © ICC

These strategies have been blown out of the water. This World Cup combined T20 batsmanship with Test match bowling and Test match field settings, and the dreary routines of this form of the game were electrified.

New Zealand led the revolution and - unusually for any New Zeeland national team - won not only the admiration but the affection of the watching world. The beige approach had gone. This was New Zealand of many colours, dashing, daring and dominant.

Australia were not far behind in terms of ambition. It was the greater wicket-taking qualities of their bowlers that won the final, a match that turned out to be a fierce game of proper cricket rather than a six-hitting competition.

Throughout the tournament, bowling sides tried to take wickets, while batting sides saw 300 as a bare minimum. That combination changed everything. The bowlers were helped by - mostly - longer boundaries, which went some way to even-ing up the contest between bat and ball.

England did a fine job in the tournament. They exemplified all that was outmoded in the ODI format, every approach the leading nations had tested and found wanting. They came in armed with stats that took no account of the fact that the world had changed.

New Zealand: dashing, daring, dominant © ICC

In the leading teams the batting was innovative. The heavy bats and unorthodox strokeplay of T20 were adapted to the medium-length format of the ODI. The snag was that batsmen had to do it better, because the format required them to do it for longer. Brendon McCullum's demolition of England was perhaps the type specimen of the new ODI batsmanship.

The willingness of fielding sides to carry on attacking did still more to change the game. In the past it had been conventional to restrict a side to say, 4.5 an over in the middle period, and for both sides to be perfectly content. ODI cricket reached a stage when there was a kind of non-aggression pact between overs 15 and 40: we won't hit too many boundaries if you promise not to take too many wickets. It was footling sport and well worth walking away from.

But a new consensus has been reached. A batsman can't score 4.5 runs an over from the pavilion. Glory be: taking wickets was back in fashion, and that's what won the final. Australia's attacking bowlers were close to unplayable, and Mitchell Starc was rightly made Man of the Tournament.

The World Cup is still far too long. It really shouldn't take four weeks to reduce 14 teams to eight, even though an awful lot of the matches were worth watching. The Associates added to the gaiety of the occasion even if there were a couple too many. Afghanistan and Ireland were great; UAE and Scotland weren't. We lose two of the Associates for the next World Cup. That's probably about right.

It can be argued that the 2015 World Cup has made the ODI the leading form of the game. It has gone - at least in terms of universal appeal - from third to first in a single leap, combining a great deal of the sexiness of T20 with at least some of the gladiatorial nature of Test cricket.

Afghanistan were great but Scotland weren't © AFP

Those individual duels within a team game are at the very heart of cricket. Starc's first over to McCullum in the final is the perfect example: the two men who have defined the tournament faced each other in a collision that had been six weeks in the making. Starc's ripping delivery that ended the matter - and was not far away from deciding the match - was cricket of the very highest level.

Cricket remains in an awkward and confused state, existing in three forms at once. It might one day splinter off into two or more or less separate games, like rugby union and rugby sevens, like artistic and rythmic gymnastics, like figure skating and ice dance.

Decisions on the game's future will no doubt be made to maximise income rather than sporting excellence, which looks bad for Test cricket in the long haul, no matter how much players see it as the real test of a cricketer.

But the fact is that 50-over cricket has made a roaring and vibrant comeback. The new consensus offers compelling and sustained action, a form of cricket in which a player knows that his wicket really matters, but also knows that overvaluing it is another route to defeat. What this World Cup gave us, in match after match, was proper cricket. It was revolutionary and it was as old-fashioned as Father Time.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books