February 18, 2016

ODIs: less is more

There's plenty of life in the format if administrators take the responsibility for smarter scheduling and more effective promotion

Sharp fielding makes all the difference in 50-over cricket © Getty Images

You can never win, unless you actually win. England have done their damnedest to throw off the shackles but lost a good series in South Africa by a hair's breadth and are now given curry for their profligacy. England went down because Adil Rashid dropped an awkward but not difficult catch at the Wanderers. In fact, England dropped a few catches that hurt. Trevor Bayliss made the point that one or two of the players give the impression they would rather the ball went elsewhere. If he is right, the answer to why the series was lost is right there.

Everyone goes to the gym these days. They should practise catching. Even the Australians do not catch as they once did. They go to the gym too. The best catchers of a cricket ball practise with devotion. Perhaps that is why they are the best. Talent, love and graft. It used to be the slip cradle, the face of the bat or the garden wall. Now it is any number of assistant people and devices. The odd thing is the number of shoddy methods on view. All these coaches and some of the blokes try to take catches with their feet and hands in the wrong place. The Australians should talk to Mark Waugh and the English lads to Paul Collingwood. Or Steve Smith and Joe Root, since they are there anyway.

Anyway, this is a complete digression. It has been fun to watch one-day cricket this past month. I always liked it, ever since Ted Dexter made Sussex a crack outfit in the, well, let's just say a long time ago. It began as a 65-over-per-side game in 1962, but after a year went to 60 overs, where it stayed for ages. Back then, most of the players simple shortened the first-class game they already knew, but the great thing for the spectator was the result in the day. Arrive, watch, go home and tell the wife who won. Innovation was for scientists, not cricketers. Dexter had a few ideas, like hit the accurate medium-pacers back over their head and bowl full and straight to straight field settings, but there wasn't much more to it than that.

Then Lancashire made an impression on everyone in England with brilliant fielding, customised bowling and Clive Lloyd. Lloyd was remarkable. He belted Australia in the 1975 World Cup final at Lord's, though were it not for a collection of run-outs that bordered on farce, Ian Chappell's team would have still won the cup. West Indies played with such ebullience that it was hard not to barrack for them against all-comers. They won it again under Lloyd in 1979 and somehow blew it - hubris probably - against India in 1983. After that everyone else had a crack and, apart from India, it has been Australia's cup that overfloweth.

No one thought about slower bouncers back then, or the reverse ramp. But the best batsmen attacked and the best bowlers had a default position, the yorker. Australia boasted the best catchers of the ball and West Indies the most predatory ground fielders. A team of the finest one-day cricketers since that first World Cup might read: Tendulkar, Gilchrist, Viv Richards, Ponting, de Villiers, Kapil, Imran, Wasim, Warne, Garner, Lillee - a number oddly short of left-handed batsmen, so Lara or Lloyd better replace Ponting. Graeme Pollock and Mike Procter might have slipped in, were the world a different place; and Sir Garfield, of course, from another age. In a moment or two, Kohli will be a given.

Food for thought and debate, though we are off piste again. England's young brigade is playing some thrilling stuff, which is not something we could previously accuse England teams of. Eoin Morgan has clearly said: spread those wings and fly. Granted, one or two have been like pheasants, beaten from the woods into the waiting gunfire, which is just dumb. Successful batting in any format takes a bit of thought. Reflect upon the Sri Lankans in 1996 and the subtle roles played by Arjuna Ranatunga and Roshan Mahanama, who were there to bat out the overs if the initial blitzkrieg missed its target.

The ongoing suspicion is that the various boards of control use the one-day game as a nice, consistent cash cow. The television networks love it most of all and pay handsomely

England will learn to present arms and take stock. As the Springsteen song says, "May your mistakes be your own." The path taken is exactly the right one and the results would endorse this had a single Wanderers skier been held. In the world of 50 overs a dropped catch matters; in T20 it can pass you by.

The Rashid blemish may be no bad thing. Australia, India and New Zealand still have England covered and so, it seems, do South Africa. But there is less in it now than for a while and, at the very least, England have caught the entertainment bug. The important thing is that they don't get carried away with themselves. At the moment the players' game face tells us all we need to know. Morgan's team are enjoying the cricket because all things appear possible. After victory the delight is clear; after defeat, the devastation is apparent. The series told them how good they can be and how vulnerable they are. It was good to see reactions that were born of raw emotion rather than emojis.

Whether it has been the remarkable batting, street-smart bowling, athletic ground fielding, or the odd extraordinarily well-executed boundary catch, this recent tranche of 50-over cricket has spoken for itself. Now it needs a context in the soul of the modern international schedule. The ongoing suspicion is that the various boards of control use the one-day game as a nice, consistent cash cow. It remains a strong commodity with which to trade tours and series. The television networks love it most of all and pay handsomely. Sponsors and advertisers love the slow burn to a result. The grounds love it for the concessions.

But no longer are sell-outs guaranteed. T20 has stolen that privilege. One-day cricket needs a place and a discipline from the administrators. Fifty-over cricket is the bridge across which T20 and Test match cricket must travel. Too much and the format becomes drained; too little and the one-night stands that are T20 become addictive.

As previously proposed by Australia, 50-over cricket should be World Cup cricket. Every country should play an equal and carefully thought-through schedule of matches over a four-year period, all of which count towards qualification and seeding for the World Cup.

Many years ago, two events - one annual, one every four years - gave one-day cricket its place in people's hearts. The World Cup was a festival of the game, bringing together nations and players in the age before television and multimedia did it anyway.

The ACB's Benson & Hedges World Series - the annual triangular tournament in Australia after the breakaway World Series Cricket module had secured the rights for Kerry Packer's Channel Nine Network - played to huge crowds in glamorous settings at night, with a white ball and in coloured clothes. Many a visiting team regarded winning that competition as the next best thing to the World Cup.

It is up to the administrators of the day to rekindle this enthusiasm for 50-over cricket. The track record is proven time and time again. The market needs to better understand the product as something special but relatively scarce. Less of it, cleverly promoted, will be more.

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

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