If ODIs feel irrelevant now, just wait till the next FTP cycle

Squeezed for calendar space by the rise of T20, the format seems an afterthought. And it's due to get worse

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
ODIs have been marginalised in recent years, and the loss of the Super League is a harsh blow, depriving them of important context  •  Nasir Kachroo/Getty Images

ODIs have been marginalised in recent years, and the loss of the Super League is a harsh blow, depriving them of important context  •  Nasir Kachroo/Getty Images

Have ODIs ever been felt less relevant than they do right now? England's Test summer is up and running, the longest IPL has just ended, in October-November is a second T20 World Cup in 12 months, by when the Blast, the Hundred, the CPL and a T20 Asia Cup will already have happened, and till then the near horizon is full of T20Is; the calendar tells us the 2023 World Cup is 16 months away but spiritually, it may as well be 16 years away.
It's got little to do with how many ODIs are to be played in the near future. After a two-year lull a whole flurry is about to hit us. This year we should see the number of ODIs bounce back to nearer the five-year pre-Covid average of about 130 games a year (after 44 and 71 games in the two pandemic-hit years).
Very few of which anyone will have known about, let alone have been waiting for in anticipation. Like the ODI series Pakistan and West Indies are playing in Multan in June, a time of year in that city that is ideally reserved for the eating of mangoes not physical exertions - daytime temperatures are regularly above 40°C. Neither side really wants to play but is doing so because there is something at stake in ODIs: points towards automatic World Cup qualification. It's the classic direct-debit trap: there must have been a good reason for signing up, but boy it doesn't sting any less whenever the time comes round to pay those dues.
England are about to take on Netherlands in a historic first bilateral series, the first time they're playing in the Netherlands. There are points at stake there as well. Yet the three games have been slipped in between the end of England's second Test and the start of the third against New Zealand. Even if you don't blink, you might miss it. England are missing key players. More tellingly, Netherlands might be too. England, by the way, have not played an ODI since last July. England, the reigning world champions, that is.
Most of these series are being played as a result of boards rescheduling a host of Super League commitments hit by Covid-19. The cut-off date for World Cup qualification is May 15 next year*, which is when the league ends. It isn't returning and so, to the point of this conversation, which is to wonder what might happen to the ODI in the next FTP (2023-27), which the ICC hopes to publish next month at its annual general meeting. Could it go the way of the ODI series between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which was supposed to take place in July but was scrapped because nobody knows why it was there in the first place? It wasn't part of the Super League. It was just there. Word is that it was scrapped so that the Lanka Premier League (LPL) could be squeezed in.
There is already some idea of what the FTP will look like. We know, for instance, that ICC events have been inked in. The World Test Championship (WTC), in place until 2029, sorts out the men's Test calendar: arranging series against six out of eight opponents (out of seven in India and Pakistan's cases) in two years should not be rocket science. Chuck in the IPL window and then a series of spaces that look like windows, but which nobody calls windows explicitly, in which members put their domestic leagues in.
That leaves… not many days to fit everything else in. The IPL has two new teams, staged 74 matches this season, and now spans two months (there were 59 games in just over six weeks in its first season). It's not inconceivable that over the course of the next cycle it will get longer, with more games.
Three new T20 leagues are scheduled to appear next year, the UAE's ILT20, South Africa's third attempt at one, and Major League Cricket in the US. The first two are to be played across January and February, a time of year in which the BBL and the BPL already take place, and which is already a peak period for international cricket. The PSL starts mid-February next year, but as Ramadan moves earlier every year (because it is on the lunar calendar), so too will the league to avoid it. Also, after the PSL's tenth season in 2025, expect more franchises. More franchises, more matches, more weeks.
One of the driving forces in the scheduling discussions for this coming FTP has been the desire of boards such as CA and the ECB to ensure their best players are available for the BBL and the Hundred. The BBL is used to not featuring Australia's biggest international stars. And in its first season the likes of Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler were only available for the first two games of the Hundred.
No longer. Australia's home schedule this season has an ODI series with South Africa in January, though there's every chance it might not happen (because, CSA's new T20 league). Even if it does go ahead, it could be the last time Australia host ODIs in January. Nick Hockley, CA's CEO, said exactly this in a podcast last week: that in the new FTP they will look to keep their white-ball international schedule clear after the New Year's Test in Sydney, so their best players can take part in the BBL. The ECB would be fools to not do the same.
Now, five years ago, in the last round of scheduling discussions, these pulls on the calendar were only just becoming evident. But where there were two or three members then wanting a window for their best players to play domestically, this time round there are five to six.
Something must give way. But what? Ravi Shastri and Ramiz Raja think bilateral T20Is are done, but that is not the prevalent view among members.
T20 remains very much the official growth format for the game. It is the format to which cricket's entry into the Olympics is pegged. And broadcasters and boards have decided that a single T20I is worth about the same money in broadcast deals as a Test or an ODI, and they take up less airtime. Safe to assume they're not going anywhere yet.
Tests? They're now cricket's prestige offering - not an outright indulgence but something that, everyone agrees without totally understanding why, adds value (like a Marlon Brando cameo back in the day). And for all the losses they make, they can be subsidised by domestic T20 leagues. The members' commitment to continue with the WTC is great, though it comes with an obvious caveat. The collective commitment of Full Members is not something you could stand a house of cards on (see the on-again, off-again Champions Trophy and the ever-changing size of the World Cup). They like the WTC now, they may not like it two years from now, they may like it again two years from then.
That leaves the bilateral ODI standing there, newly stripped of the Super League, stark naked in the rain. The Super League was a decent idea, though 30 years late. It gave meaning to every ODI and rationalised their quantity: Sri Lanka's upcoming five-match series with Australia is the first of that length since just before the 2019 World Cup. Between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, on the other hand, there were 42 five-match bilateral series. They've not been missed.
The pandemic crippled the league, first delaying its launch and robbing it of momentum. And now, as members scramble to reschedule those postponed commitments, it feels like cricket shaking the last bit of life out of the league, hoping to find some chump change in its pockets. This despite there being a real stake to some of these games: just three wins, for example, separate eighth place - the final qualifying spot - from third.
Because of the Super League, Netherlands will end up playing more ODIs this year (15) than ever before. Because of it, Zimbabwe get to tour Australia later this year for a bilateral series for only the second time ever. Those, surely, are good outcomes.
Still, it's unlikely ODIs will disappear altogether. Cricket administrators don't do radical. Plus, there's still a global 50-over tournament every two years until 2031. But what chance the ODI becomes an opt-in format of sorts, only acquiring meaning and frequency in the run-up to major events? Scheduled for most tours, but the first to be ditched when calendars need to be adjusted. It's a reasonable assumption.
And so they may feel irrelevant now, in the death throes of the Super League, but imagine how irrelevant they will actually be in the next cycle.
* The cut-off date had erroneously been mentioned as March 31, 2023 earlier.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo