Adding spice to one-day cricket

FINDING itself between the fast-growing Twenty20 and the traditional form of the game, one-day cricket was always in danger of losing its identity.

FINDING itself between the fast-growing Twenty20 and the traditional form of the game, one-day cricket was always in danger of losing its identity.

Twenty20 has not only stripped the 50-over format of its abridged version tag, it promises to be what one-day cricket was in its early days: a novelty. Such has been its stupendous success in the international arena in a short period.

One-day cricket has, without doubt, changed drastically since the inaugural World Cup in England 30 years ago. However, it has become predictable of late, to the point of being boring at times.

This is largely because teams have mastered the existing format — in place for two decades now — to the point that there isn't a trick that hasn't been tried.

A total of 300 does not guarantee victory these days, when, back in the 1987 World Cup, anything between 200 to 220 was considered a winning one. High-quality willows, wielded by men who use them like maces, have ensured that no total is safe.

It was New Zealander Martin Crowe who perfected the concept of the pinch-hitter in the form of left-hander Mark Greatbatch during the 1992 World Cup. But four years later, the Sri Lankan opening pair of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana destroyed the opposition, often taking the aerial route when the field restriction was in place during the first 15 overs.

Thereafter, pinch-hitters at the top of the order became the norm, and the start, more or less, determined the outcome of a match. In short, it was becoming more and more of a batsman's game.

Viewed against this background, the innovations, to be introduced on a 10-month trial basis from July 30, announced by the ICC have been greeted with scepticism in some quarters and excitement in others. Meanwhile, England and Australia have agreed to try out the changes during the NatWest Challenge, beginning on July 7.

The two important changes involve fielding restrictions and introduction of soccer-style substitution.

The fielding restriction — increased from 15 overs to 20 to be applied for the first 10 overs of every innings plus two additional blocks of five overs each left to the discretion of the fielding captain (close-catcher restriction to apply only for the first 10 overs) — will introduce an element of suspense.

The clause on substitution, which permits teams to replace a player at any stage of the match with the replacement entitled to assume batting or bowling duties, has been well-thought out as the possibilities it throws up are numerous.

Until now, substitutes have had very little role to play in cricket, barring the fielding department. But now, captains can bolster their teams with either a batsman or an extra bowler depending on the situation. A team can now wave in a specialist batsman in the `death' overs or replace a mediumpacer with a spinner if the pitch assists spin.

Former Australian batsman Dean Jones believes that the innovations would neutralise the effect of the toss or the pitch on the results of the matches. "On a green pitch, a side at 40 for four might bring in an extra batsman and score 230 instead of 180. This might also give a new lease of life to ageing players like Anil Kumble.

"The bottom line is, even with all the changes, the best team will still win. The game has changed over the years, but the best team has kept winning."

Though it is early days and hazardous to guess the impact of the changes, one can be sure that with the new format it will not be a predictable one-day game. As Sachin Tendulkar put it, "I don't know how different it will be, but the captain and the team will have to sit down and chalk out plans to introduce an element of surprise."

Adapting to the new rules will be a challenge, and it will certainly take a while for teams to settle into a pattern. Batting strategies will not be as simple as now: exploiting the first 15-over field restriction, consolidating during the middle overs (16th to 40th) and launching another assault in the final 10.

Indian coach Greg Chappell says, "The game needs new life and the new rules will make it interesting. It will be all about new tactics in a difficult situation."

Jonty Rhodes, the former South African batsman, feels that the innovations to the rules will encourage teams to try out younger players, who are good fielders but not yet ready as batsman/bowler. "I think that fielding is the key in one-dayers and bringing on a good fielder can make a world of difference to the final result," he said.

Former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal, though piqued by the idea of 12 players instead of the traditional XI, was, however, all praise for the changes in the field restrictions. "Earlier, only opening bowlers used to get the stick, and only batsmen got the advantage of restrictions. But now, this will be spread over."

The rule changes have kindled interest; the cricketing world waits in anticipation. Innovations are good for the game.