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Andrew Miller

Why 50-over cricket must go

Andrew Miller calls for the abolition of 50-over cricket


Adam Hollioake lifts the inaugural Twenty20 Cup. Could it be the start of a one-day revolution? © Getty Images
The analogy is hardly a new one. If Test matches are five-course meals, then one-day cricket is the equivalent of a Big Mac, fries and an extra-large Coke: fast, filling, addictive ... and grotesquely fattening. For years, cricket's waistline has been ballooning out of control. All of a sudden, however, there might be an opportunity to bring a balanced diet back into fashion.
During next summer's Ashes series, the England & Wales Cricket Board is thinking about staging the world's first Twenty20 international. For the moment, it is intended as a one-off - although that was said of the very first one-day game as well, again between England and Australia, back in 1970-71. A more likely scenario, given the successful debuts of Twenty20 cricket in both England and South Africa, is an explosion of interest in the concept, and the proliferation of such matches all around the world - even the USA has been enticed by the format.
At any other period over the last 20 years, such a prospect would have been deeply unnerving for cricket's traditional fans. One-day cricket has long been an excuse to overfill one's plate, and given a choice between a buffet and a bistro, the bistro has been steadily losing out. But times they are a-changing. Just as McDonald's have been persuaded to cut the size of their portions, so too, it seems, it is one-day matches, and not Tests, that are going to have to adapt or die(t).
That has been made abundantly clear by the proposed itinerary for Australia's forthcoming tour of India - the blue riband event of the current era. Incredibly, the plan is for four Tests and no one-day games whatsoever, which represents a sea-change of interest from the Indian administrators and public - in 2003, the team played just five Tests but 28 one-day games. But it is a welcome change, for Test cricket has been soaring in recent years, not least in India, whose last two series against Australia will rank among the greatest of all time.
On the other hand, the one-day game is deep in the doldrums, as last year's disgracefully bloated World Cup demonstrated. That tournament was driven to the brink of insanity by commercialism, lasted roughly three weeks too long, and featured such a ghastly mismatch of abilities - even among the Test-playing nations - that all but a smattering of games were hopeless no-contests.
In short, it is time to bin the 50-over international. It has served its purpose, by driving Test cricket towards the new, exhilarating pace that fans around the world are currently enjoying, but it has outstayed its welcome. The format's apogee came in 1999, when we were treated to the single greatest game of one-day cricket that can ever be played over 50 overs - Australia's epic semi-final against South Africa. Ever since then its formula has been exposed, and interest in it has been freefalling.
At a stroke, Twenty20 internationals would purge one-day cricket of most of its ills: those tedious mid-innings bouts of nurdling; the inequalities of batting under lights, and the sheer gulf in class that is apparent at every World Cup (with only 20 overs to play with, Namibia's Jan-Berrie Burger and Canada's John Davison might have had more than just cameos to remember from the last tournament).
And instead of 100 energy-sapping overs in a day (and eight plane flights every week during those interminable VB Series), entire triangular tournaments could be done and dusted in the blink of an eye. With two matches of 40 overs at weekends, the average fan would get value for money and an extra hour in the pub. And if that meant one team having to play twice, they could make up for what they lost in freshness by gaining an insight into the pitch conditions.

Jonty Rhodes - the man who reinvented the art of fielding © Getty Images
Of course, there is a danger that Test cricket would be undermined, both by the popularity of the format and by its differing priorities. But nothing of the sort happened last summer, despite the blaze of cynicism with which the Twenty20 Cup was launched. Instead of the anticipated diet of witless slogging, we were treated to audacious, attacking batsmanship; ingenious improvisation; cunning variation from the bowlers, and feverish fielding.
By appealing to the relative strengths of each discipline, Test and one-day cricket can each grow in strength, and feed off each other's successes. For example, it was one-day cricket's obsession with runs (and Jonty Rhodes's ability to prevent them) that led directly to the acceptance of fielding as a discipline to rank alongside batting and bowling. The lost art of wicketkeeping could benefit in precisely the same way. With less chance of being called upon to play a matchwinning innings, a man like Chris Read would earn full appreciation for his ability to stand up to the medium-pacers, and cut down on those byes.
Twenty20 cricket is clearly loaded in favour of the batsman. And yet the truest feats of batsmanship cannot be achieved without a world-class bowler bearing down from the other end, which is why Test cricket will always be a class apart. There remains something ineffable about the highest peaks of the game - Brian Lara's 400 not out, Jim Laker's 19 wickets in a match, even the dogged beauty of an Atherton rearguard. It is only in the five-day game that such Olympian feats of endurance can be achieved.
Conversely, there has been just one century scored in the Twenty20 Cup (and none at all in South Africa's PRO20 Series), and with just four overs to play with, no bowler has managed more than five wickets. For those newcomers who are curious to see more of their heroes, they will be obliged to take the step up, and move to the rhythm and rituals of Test cricket as well.
It may be thrilling but it is also unfilling, and that is precisely how a snack should be. It is time to call time at the buffet bar, and instead embrace the fat-free, 20-over alternative.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.