When 50-over cricket was abolished

Bizarre and short-sighted

Duncan Fletcher


Hampshire celebrate with the Friends Provident Trophy, Hampshire v Sussex, Friends Provident Trophy final, Lord's, July 25, 2009
Hampshire - the last domestic 50-overs champions in England © Getty Images
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It is an age-old lament. It is also an age-old neglect. Nothing is ever done about the glaringly obvious fact that county cricketers play too much cricket. And especially the fact that they play too much one-day cricket. It has to be the major reason why England have never won a global one-day trophy.

Not only do they play too much, they also play it at the wrong time. Generally games are tagged on to the end of four-day Championship matches, when players are tired, and sometimes from long hours of travelling as well as playing. There is no time to think and reflect, no time to rest, no time to practise. So there is little intensity. How can there be, when the players have just finished a four-day game? It is not their fault. Their minds become trained to be complacent, relying on the subconscious to muddle their way through. By the middle of the season they are burnt out and on autopilot. The mediocrity is manifested in the little things - like the running between the wickets and, especially, the fielding. It is all too easy to leave the big jobs (scoring hundreds, bowling at the death) to the overseas pro.

Too often, matches are played at the start of the summer when the pitches are too spicy. It is little wonder that England have struggled to produce power-hitters for the Powerplay overs. You just cannot do that on the pitches provided. You produce batsmen very good square of the wicket, but rarely able to hit straight over the top. In international cricket your top three all need to be able to hit high down the ground. They obviously cannot do that all the time, but they do need to have that ability.

In county cricket there is no time for specific one-day nets or middle practices. The practices before a four-day match will centre on that format. The one-day stuff will only become relevant on the morning of the game. That is too late.

And even when there is time, more often than not the nets are not suitable. The groundstaff simply do not have the requisite opportunity to prepare the sort of flat surfaces on which batsmen can play lots of audacious shots. Instead, the net surfaces are like early-season pitches that seam and jag around, and batsmen find themselves just surviving. I have to say I have a lot of sympathy for the groundstaff in this regard. They just have too much to do. If only more counties were like Leicestershire, where a member of the groundstaff is placed solely in charge of the nets, which I believe are still the best in the country.

The ECB's decision to scrap 50-over cricket for the 2010 domestic season is bizarre and short-sighted. Maybe they are cleverly gazing into the future and seeing that all international one-day cricket will soon be of a 40-over duration, and so are taking a gamble on playing 40-over stuff now. But I doubt it. It is all to do with the finances, and not the standard of the cricket.

South Africa will suffer similarly. Their reduction to 40 overs in domestic cricket is a mistake too. Previously they played matches over 45 overs, and I thought that was just about close enough to replicate international cricket of 50 overs. South Africa had not won the World Cup but they had shown up well enough in the 50-over format. But was this shorter domestic game a problem all along? Recently South Africa seem to have struggled in batting for the full 50 overs. Maybe the accumulated experience of playing a slightly shorter game is having its effects. It will now only get worse. Modifications in cricket always take time to show their true effects. Take the umpire referral system. You cannot expect it to be perfect straight away.

Ten overs is a lot of cricket. We have seen how much can happen in games where an innings lasts just 20 overs. Well, a lot can happen in ten, too. There is a skill to building constant momentum throughout a 50-over innings so that you still have wickets in hand at the end to make a charge. The advent of the batting powerplay has made it even more imperative to play the full 50 overs so that real scenarios are repeated time and time again, rather than have shorter powerplays squashed into a shorter game.

If county cricket is to provide cricketers of sufficient grounding and experience, it needs to schedule its various formats in sealed-off blocks. It is good that it is now down to three competitions, but the amount of cricket to be played within them is not so good. You need to play a block of Championship cricket, then a block of one-day (50, not 40 overs) cricket, then the Twenty20 Cup in its entirety. Then, say, another block of one-day games, then a block of Championship cricket at the end.

I know how difficult the scheduling must be, and I am not for one minute suggesting a reduction in the number of counties (unless they are becoming an unsustainable financial drain), but county cricket desperately needs these windows so that its players can specialise and master the skills required. They simply cannot do that at the moment, and it is producing a lot of mediocre cricketers. They could be so much better.

Between 1999 and 2007, Duncan Fletcher coached England in 166 one-day internationals. The results were 75 wins, 82 defeats, two ties and seven no- results.

© John Wisden & Co.
 
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