October 1, 2007

Fifty more reasons to embrace change

The 50-over game falls comprehensively between two stools, and is becoming fast irrelevant

Paul Collingwood: leader of a sinking ship, in a sinking format of the game © Getty Images

England is the country where Twenty20 cricket originated, and if today's apology of a performance in Dambulla is anything to go by, they have already decided that there's no point in expending any energy on the longer version of the shorter game. Their hopeless 119-run drubbing in the first ODI against Sri Lanka provided yet more grist to the mill of those, like myself, who believe that 50-over cricket has run its long and not-incredibly-distinguished course.

Aside from your average Formula One Grand Prix, there can be no sport in which the winners and losers of any given contest are so blatantly telegraphed so far from the chequered flag. And yet, even when Lewis Hamilton is cruising at top speed, there is always the threat of a last-lap blow-out to keep the contest on artificial tenterhooks. At 132 for 6 in the 30th over, however, chasing a dim-and-distant 270, it's time to avert the gaze - even though there may still be enough time remaining in the contest to complete 50 laps at Spa Francochamps.

For the record, England are also useless at 20-over cricket, so this is not a partisan rant. They mustered a solitary victory in the recent tournament in South Africa (and that, let's not forget, came against Zimbabwe). They were routed by Australia and India, and blew promising positions in two of their key games against New Zealand and South Africa. Their ineptitude, or that of any of their fellow international no-hopers, is not the issue in this argument. It's all about the interest engendered by the contests.

The ICC World Twenty20 was not a flawless tournament - its very speed was dizzying, especially with three matches a day in the group stages, and the surfeit of slogging on display brought a number of critics out in a po-faced rash. Not since the days of WG Grace has the phrase: "It's not cricket!" been uttered with such pomposity (although this time, in a neat historical twist, the chief nay-sayers were Australians rather than establishment Englishmen).

But there's no denying the spectacle provided in that heady fortnight. Most of the games were thrilling to watch; two in particular being the final and Australia's shocking loss to Zimbabwe. But best of all was the speed of the no-contests - in particular Kenya's two pitiful efforts against New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Against New Zealand, the match was as good as over after 11 balls when Kenya slumped to 1 for 4. Twenty-four overs later, it was over. Done and dusted inside two hours, much like a 9-0 scoreline in football. Now that's entertainment, regardless of the one-sidedness.

The debate will continue to rage about the merit of Twenty20 cricket. Yes, it may well be cricket from ADHD-sufferers, but why should that be a criticism? That was exactly what 50- (or 60-) over cricket was designed for in the 1960s and 1970s, in the days when Test and county cricket was so stultifyingly slow that any change was for the better.

These days Tests are doing just fine - in terms of sporting spectacles, the 2005 Ashes has not been bettered since the start of the millennium. It's the 50-over game that has to change. We can never again be subjected to a World Cup as appalling as the Caribbean campaign earlier this year. The 2003 tournament was scarcely any better and the sporting public will simply not allow a third installment. Besides, conventional ODIs have no redeeming features that cannot be better expressed in either Tests or Twenty20 cricket.

Take, for instance, the best match of recent months - Ravi Bopara and Stuart Broad's epic run-chase at Old Trafford in August. The only reason that game was such a cliffhanger is that England had already bowled India out for 212 and so, at 114 for 7 when the pair came together, they needed to bat at less than five runs an over to win. In other words, they had landed themselves a Test-match scenario, in which they could play every ball on its merits, put a price on their wickets, and crank up the tension with every run or dot-ball they accrued.

The 50-over game falls comprehensively between two stools. It's neither one thing nor the other, it rewards no-one but the very, very best - ie the unassailable Australians, who have not lost a single World Cup fixture in eight years - and it virtually eliminates the upset by doing away with, first the get-out clause of the draw (Test cricket's single most wonderful feature), and secondly by stringing each game out over far, far too long. If FA Cup fixtures lasted six-and-a-half hours like your average ODI, there's no way that Hereford Utd would ever have held on against Newcastle, or Bournemouth against Man U. Class always wins out in the end. But where on earth is the fun in that?

The bottom line is that 50-over cricket is boring (I mean, truly boring, even to those who love the sport, not "bo-oring" in the way that non-believers and toddlers dismiss it). Sadly - regardless of how good, bad or indifferent the participating teams happen to be - that has been the case for years.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo