Sport

Is ODI's sparkle over?

Neil Manthorp

With the rise in popularity of T20 cricket, the 50-over game is facing some serious challenges.

Cricket followers could be forgiven for thinking that the ICC Champions Trophy was a largely meaningless and irrelevant tournament, created by the game’s governing body 10 years ago to swell its burgeoning coffers in the “dry” years between the increasingly lucrative four-yearly World Cups. And for the most part they’d be right.

This year, however, there is a little more at stake, such as the survival of the 50-over game. A few years ago the ICC only needed to produce a financial balance sheet to persuade its member nations that the Champions Trophy was necessary (if not terribly important), but the T20 World Cup has changed all that.

The last couple of series have been dogged by one-sidedness and were consequently as entertaining as watching a net session. A very long net session.

When teams are either mismatched or just really poor, such as England, it is hard to say whether keeping them in the field for 100 overs is more cruel to the players or the people who have paid money to watch them.

Mind you, the Roman Colosseum did a roaring trade so long as some hapless victim was being slaughtered so perhaps there is a use for England and the West Indies in 50-over cricket. The problem would come when they played each other. A fight to the death ... using pillows.

But it’s not only the cricket and entertainment arguments that make 50-over cricket vulnerable. It’s the audience, the people to whom cricket is trying to make itself irresistible. Most simply don’t have the time or the concentration span for an eight-hour contest, at least not on a regular basis.

The World Cup has a history and a pedigree and will always remain a contest over 50 overs, but the format of the game elsewhere will have to become far more “exclusive” in order to be appreciated. Whereas a “typical” tour today might contain three Test matches, five one-dayers and two T20s, it is inevitable that the balance between the 50-over games and 20-over games will shift—probably resulting in a direct, proportional swap.

Even the more conservative and “traditional” players and administrators agree that change is inevitable. New Zealand skipper Daniel Vettori is not enjoying “T20 mania” but is wise enough to see that the game’s development does not have a reverse gear.

“Just because one form of the game is incredibly popular at the moment that doesn’t mean that we should lose perspective and promote it above all others,” Vettori said in Colombo earlier this week.
 
“Test cricket is the ultimate form of the game and that’s the way it should stay, although the balance between fixtures on tours in future might change,” Vettori said.

“It’s not up to me, obviously, but from a New Zealand point of view a three-three-three split between Test matches, one-dayers and T20s would probably be ideal.

“You’d get a pretty decent idea of which was the better all-round team after three of each.”

International cricketers enjoy 50-over cricket because it is a far greater challenge than 20 overs and, whereas it used to be regarded as a “lottery”, it is now seen as a fair test.

But if they want it to survive they need to take more responsibility for the way they present it. There can be no more “cruising” in the middle overs, fielders and bowlers happily conceding four singles and the batsmen jogging like United States presidents for the benefit of cameramen. Mutual “pacts” like that, between supposed rivals, belong in cycling where they form a peleton, share jokes and peel bananas for each other before the cut and thrust of the sprint finish.

Apart from the future of oneday internationals, the other feature which is attracting the interest of the rest of the cricket-playing world is South Africa’s ability to put an ICC trophy in their cabinet, having reached the rankings summit in both forms of the game.

The only “world” tournament they have won was the inaugural Champions Trophy back in 1998. But hardly anyone remembers that. It is very much on the minds of the Proteas.

“If we don’t win an ICC trophy then it won’t make us a bad team. We’ve achieved too much for that to be the case,” says captain Graeme Smith.

“But it will be a huge hole on our CV and one that we’re all very conscious of. But I don’t think for one minute that we won’t win an international tournament. We have too many good players and too much collective determination to keep falling short,” Smith says.

Just as professional sportsmen claim not to read newspapers, yet, oddly, are always grumpy when something critical has been written about them, they prefer to feign pleasant surprise when nominated for an award. We are all the same in that regard.

However, it has not gone unnoticed in the squad that not one of them made the “short” list of names for the ICC’s “ODI Cricketer of the Year” to be announced before the final. And, as the number one ranked team in the world and double conquerors of Australia, they are damn right to have noticed.

Perhaps it’s just the sort of slap in the face that makes teams win things.

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