Fifty years of one-day international cricket

Lawrence Booth

On January 5, 1971, Australia and England played a one-day game at Melbourne of such apparent meaninglessness that Wisden declined to provide a match report or full scorecard - an oversight now remedied. The sniffiness came as no surprise: the match was hurriedly arranged to ease the financial burden after the Third Test had been abandoned, and players on both sides struggled to take it seriously.

Watched by a curious crowd of 46,000, more than twice the expected number (a hint, there, for the future), the cricket proved low-key: Geoff Boycott made eight in 37 balls, England managed seven boundaries in 40 eight-ball overs, and Australia ambled home with five to spare. And when Ray Illingworth's side regained the Ashes six weeks later, the MCG experiment seemed forgotten.

History has been kinder: that game was quickly anointed as the first one-day international, and its 50-year anniversary passed in January, by which time a further 4,266 had come and gone. To mark the occasion, Wisden has named Five Cricketers with a difference: one for each decade of the format's existence.

The quintet comprises three batsmen, a seam-bowling all-rounder and a spinner; three Indians, a West Indian and a Sri Lankan. They are five giants of the limited-overs game - and of Test cricket, as it happens, confirming the suspicion that the best players thrive wherever they lay their bat.

Condensing so huge a cast into a handful will provoke debate. Australia have won five of the 12 men's one-day World Cups, yet go unrepresented. There is no room for Kumar Sangakkara, whose haul of 14,234 ODI runs is second only to Sachin Tendulkar; nor for Wasim Akram, the only bowler other than Muttiah Muralitharan to pass 500 wickets; nor Joel Garner, who was among the first to nail the one-day yorker, and who conceded barely three an over. There is no Ricky Ponting, no Waqar Younis, no Chaminda Vaas.

Others, too, would have been in contention if we were choosing an all-time XI. Dean Jones was an early master of the chase, paving the way for Michael Bevan and Virat Kohli, our ODI cricketer of the 2010s. Adam Gilchrist was both a pinch-hitter - after Kris Srikkanth, Mark Greatbatch and Sanath Jayasuriya had smoothed the path - and a proper batsman, as well as a wicketkeeper. In the field, M. S. Dhoni was a master puppeteer, whose last-over sixes underlined his sense of drama. And any one-day podium that has no room for A. B. de Villiers must be pretty strong.

Two unexpected England players might have stood a chance in the 1970s but for Viv Richards. No one scored as many ODI hundreds that decade as Dennis Amiss (four), and no bowler came within nine wickets of Chris Old (41). Old, by the way, went for 3.41 an over in his 32 ODIs. As Harold Pinter wrote of Len Hutton: another time, another time.

The 1970s: Viv Richards

There were two showcase one-day internationals in the 1970s, and Viv Richards lit up both. In 1975, in the first World Cup final, he helped West Indies beat Australia by pulling off three run-outs - Alan Turner, Greg Chappell and Ian Chappell, the first two with direct hits, the second from point, aiming at a single stump.

Four years later, West Indies returned to Lord's and defended their title, after Richards smashed an unbeaten 138 against a helpless England. There have been few more dismissive strokes on the biggest stage than his last-ball six that afternoon, a flick over square leg off Mike Hendrick.

These days, such strokes are two a penny; back then, they were pure gold. By the end of the decade, Richards was outscoring almost everyone, more quickly, more violently, more memorably.

Of those who topped 500 ODI runs, only his captain Clive Lloyd had a higher strike-rate than his 87, but at an average barely half Richards's 73; and only Greg Chappell totalled more than his 883, but at a lower average (54) and strike-rate (74).

Even without a helmet, Richards intimidated bowlers, his gum-chewing swagger to the wicket somewhere between an act of theatre and a declaration of war. The IPL marketeers would have had a field day, just as their World Series Cricket predecessors did in the late 1970s: in limited-overs internationals played under Kerry Packer's banner, Richards scored 1,063 runs, more than any of his West Indian colleagues. If nothing else, it was a useful net.

His maiden ODI hundred had come in 1976, in one of only two men's internationals played at Scarborough; the third century, 153 not out, was at the MCG, six months after the 1979 final.

But Richards, like all greats, transcended his sport - in his own mind, and others'. He later described his innings in that final as "the turning point in West Indian cricket history", since it meant the 1975 win could not be disregarded as a one-off. The team, he felt, now had "no reason at all to feel inferior".

He was ahead of his times, too, seeing in those triumphs over the old guard of Australia and England a point made not just by a cricket team but by an entire culture. "I may be wrong," he wrote in his aptly entitled 1991 autobiography, Hitting Across the Line, "but I sense that winning an ultimate contest like that is more important for a black person than anyone else."

Nearly three decades before most of the world woke up, Richards knew black lives mattered. His one-day aura shone deep into the next decade, never more brightly than when he made 189 not out at Old Trafford in 1984, in a total of 272 for nine (next-best was 26, by Eldine Baptiste).

But by then, the West Indian story had shifted to Test cricket - a narrative foretold, as Richards suggested, by their one-day dominance. And no one embodied that more than he did.

The 1980s: Kapil Dev

Like Richards, Kapil Dev had the ability and the charisma to shift cricket's tectonic plates. And while it's true that India's seismic victory in the 1983 World Cup was not solely his work, they might never have got close without him.

An old-school Test nation, India might not have embraced the joys of limited-overs cricket, and the global game might have taken much longer to realise its economic potential.

Kapil's running catch over his shoulder to send back Richards on a magical day at Lord's, where India defended 183 to prevent a West Indian World Cup hat-trick, was the symbolic moment of 1980s one-day cricket, a wresting of the baton by one champion from another.

But his most crucial intervention had come a week earlier at Tunbridge Wells. At 17 for five against Zimbabwe, India were in danger of going out. Kapil responded with what Wisden called "one of the most spectacular innings played in this form of cricket": an unbeaten 175 from 138 balls, with 16 fours and six sixes. India made 266 for eight, and won. The absence of TV cameras has burnished the mythology: only those who were really there can say how often he disturbed the rhododendrons. Seven days later at Lord's, India came up roses.

Events that summer led John Woodcock to describe Kapil as "the Severiano Ballesteros of the game, a man capable of heroics". India Today had a grander scope in mind. Surveying the "personal rivalries, inner tensions, regional loyalties" that had besmirched the Indian game, the newspaper declared: "One man, in the short space of time as captain, counsellor and friend, has altered all that - mainly by personal example."

Kapil was no one-trick pony. Across the 1980s, he took 168 wickets in one-day internationals, 24 clear of his nearest rival, Imran Khan. And he scored 2,869 runs at a strike-rate of nearly 102, practically unheard of back then. Among regulars, only New Zealand's Lance Cairns bettered that, though his tally was just 792. Richards, meanwhile, had a strike-rate of 91.

If Kapil wasn't always at the crease for a long time (he averaged 26, and suffered 11 ducks, more than anyone during the decade), he was undoubtedly there for a good time. And it was infectious: when Australia hosted the World Championship of Cricket early in 1985 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the state of Victoria, India saw off the other six Test-playing nations to lift the trophy. Kapil's new-ball incisions in the final against Pakistan at the MCG were crucial.

Twenty-four years after India fell for one-day cricket, the nation's heads were turned by victory at the inaugural World T20, in South Africa. Soon after came the IPL. Kapil's place in that lineage is as proud as anyone's.

The 1990s: Sachin Tendulkar

Selecting a purple patch from Tendulkar's one-day career is as fraught as picking a favourite child. To plump for the 1990s ignores more than half his 18,426 ODI runs. Yet his pre-eminence in that period - especially in its second half - is startling. He made 24 hundreds, 20 from the start of 1996, and nine in 1998 alone. What for most batsmen would have been the work of a lifetime was for Tendulkar the spoils of 12 months.

Even now, no one has scored as many ODI hundreds in a calendar year. Only a World Cup eluded him (and would until 2011), yet Tendulkar's personal triumphs became a storyline in themselves, so distracting that India's lack of silverware scarcely mattered.

Take the 1999 tournament in England, where they finished bottom of the Super Six table, below Zimbabwe. Instead, his fans recall how he returned from a trip home for his father's funeral to score an unbeaten 140 against Kenya at Bristol.

It's also true he wasn't averse to cashing in: four of his hundreds in the 1990s were scored off Zimbabwe, three off Kenya (against whom he averaged 385). But there were five against Australia and five against Sri Lanka, two of the decade's world champions. Tough runs, easier runs: for Tendulkar, they were much the same.

Long before Covid-19, his great gift was being able to succeed in a bubble. Despite the hullabaloo that accompanied his every gesture, despite the demands of a fast-growing country itching for global clout, despite propping up a shaky Test team, he took a deep breath and got on with it - always armed with a bat that seemed too big, and usually from the top of the order. A strike-rate of 86 lost out to few in comparison.

His decade had started slowly. By September 8, 1994, after 77 one-day appearances in the 1990s, he had scored 2,126 runs at 33, with 17 fifties and no century. Next day, against Australia in Colombo, he made 110. And while that innings was followed by three ducks, it was also the start of a broader trend: from September 9 until the decade's end, Tendulkar scored an ODI hundred roughly every six innings - as close to inevitability as anyone since Bradman.

The high point came in Sharjah in April 1998, during the Coca-Cola Cup, a tournament that might otherwise have passed into obscurity. In three days, he hit two hundreds against Australia. The first - 143, then a career-best - occurred after a sandstorm had wiped four overs off India's allocation. (In a typical twist, India lost, but qualified for the final on net run-rate, so the innings was deified anyway.) The second, 134, helped win the trophy. It was his 25th birthday, and this was his 15th ODI hundred; Wisden hailed his "genius", no doubt wondering what feats lay ahead.

The 2000s: Muttiah Muralitharan

These days, it's taken as read that slow bowlers win white-ball matches. In Muttiah Muralitharan's era, not so much. He did, though, possess the ingredient widely regarded as the one-day spinner's sine qua non: he had mystery, thanks to an unusually pliable wrist, which gave his off-breaks added value.

When he retired from international cricket after Sri Lanka's defeat by India in the 2011 World Cup final, Murali had hoovered up 534 ODI wickets - a haul that, a decade later, is still 32 clear of the competition.

The first ten years of the new millennium were an extended heyday. Already a World Cup winner, and with the no-ball controversies at the hands of Australian umpires behind him, he was into his impish stride. He formed chalk-and-cheese partnerships, first with the left-arm swing and seam of Chaminda Vaas, then with the slingy thunderbolts of Lasith Malinga.

Swift enough through the air to discourage batsmen from taking liberties with their footwork, but devilish off the pitch if they weren't reading him from the hand, Murali claimed 335 ODI wickets - the most in any decade by any bowler (next, with 324, also in the 2000s, is Brett Lee).

The previous decade, when he had considered quitting the game because of the furore over his action, had not exactly been unprofitable: 177 wickets at 27. In October 2000, he laid down a marker for the new millennium: a then world record seven for 30 against India in the Coca-Cola Champions Trophy at Sharjah, followed two days later by three for six in the final (India 54 all out).

On an average day, Murali might take two for 35. The problem for batsmen was that he was a lot better than average, and the next couple of years brought one example after another: five for 30 in Napier, a combined seven for 40 in successive matches against England, five for nine out of a New Zealand total of 218 for eight at Sharjah. Wisden, briefly sounding like Geoffrey Boycott, said the batsmen "might as well have been playing with sticks of rhubarb".

All the mastery made his figures of none for 99 at Sydney in 2005-06, then the most runs conceded from ten overs in ODI history, one of cricket's most incongruous analyses. Mainly, though, he was relentless, conceding an average of 3.74 from the 1,836.1 overs he bowled that decade; only South Africa's metronome Shaun Pollock (3.62) was harder to hit. As for Murali's haul of wickets, one measure of its magnitude was that the next spinner, New Zealand's Daniel Vettori, had 112 fewer.

Some still grumbled about his elbow, whose natural kink was made to look worse by the whirling wrist. But the ICC had long since cleared his action, leaving Muralitharan - who was meanwhile racking up 800 Test wickets - to enjoy the bouquets of all but a few.

The 2010s: Virat Kohli

In 2011, Virat Kohli hoisted Sachin Tendulkar on to his shoulders as India's cricketers celebrated their World Cup triumph on the outfield of Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium. Kohli explained that Tendulkar had "carried the burden of the nation for 21 years". He finished with the kind of flourish that was beginning to characterise his batting: "It was time we carried him." By the end of the decade, it was as if Kohli had decided to carry the burden himself.

India might not have won another World Cup, but his performances in 50-over cricket were among the greatest by any player in any format. (And all the while, he was excelling in Tests and Twenty20.) Kohli's one-day tally in the 2010s was 11,125. Daylight, as they say, was second, and Rohit Sharma third, with 8,249.

Even accounting for Kohli's tirelessness - he alone appeared in over 200 ODIs - his numbers took white-ball batting into unexplored territory. He made 42 centuries (Sharma came next, with 28), at an average over 60 (second only among regulars to A. B. de Villiers's 64), and a strike-rate of 94. He redefined what was possible in run-chases.

There had been great finishers before: Australians Dean Jones and Michael Bevan, then Kohli's own World Cup-winning captain, M. S. Dhoni. But Kohli was something else. He batted in 82 of India's 94 victorious chases, scoring 5,076 runs at an average of 95, with 21 hundreds and 20 fifties.

His competitiveness meant it was not enough simply to lead his team towards the finishing line: he had to breast the tape himself; there were 29 not-outs. While Kohli was at the crease, India were in the game.

And he made his runs with a lightness of touch that was supposed to be going out of fashion. He could clear the ropes when he had to, but he also picked gaps and turned ones into twos.

Unlike Jones and Bevan, Kohli performed under the gaze of the world's most demanding fans. Unlike Dhoni, he batted up the order, and often needed to see off the new ball before he could contemplate the conclusion. And he was ruthless, making the most of good form: four hundreds in five innings in 2012 against Sri Lanka and Pakistan; five in nine in 2017-18 against New Zealand and South Africa; three in a row against West Indies in seven days in October 2018.

Like all the greats, his hot streaks were hotter and longer than his rivals'. No team kept him quiet. He made nine centuries against West Indies, eight against Australia, seven against Sri Lanka, five against New Zealand. Only England took his wicket at an average below 50. For opposition bowlers, that was as good as it got.

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