Days numbered?

The most worthy idea in terms of format has come from Sachin Tendulkar.-PTI

A sudden identity crisis has hit the 50-overs game. S. Ram Mahesh looks into its chances of survival.

The 50-over format has been the subject of much discussion in the cricket world, its position now roughly that of a middle child sandwiched between an esteemed elder sibling and a loud-mouthed younger one. No surprise then that it isn’t entirely sure of its identity. Nor, it appears, is anyone else.

One-day cricket for instance was found guilty by the high priests of all the treason Twenty20 is censured for: too low-brow; far too many hits and giggles to be proper; disruptive and certain to kill the game. But cricketers, when asked about the future of the 50-over format these days, speak of the space and time it offers – they might as easily be referring to Test cricket.

It’s this lack of perceived identity that’s hurting the one-day game. That and the fact that it’s rarely invested with meaning, for one-dayers go by in a blur, seldom leaving an imprint. Twenty20 because it is unabashed entertainment (a dubious definition, but more on that later) is allowed its meaninglessness. The 50-over format, largely because it was scheduled indiscriminately in conditions weighted in the batsman’s favour, has lost that leeway. Shane Warne is convinced one-day cricket has passed its sell-by date. His solution is to eliminate it – cricket tours, he wrote in the Times, should contain only Tests and Twenty20 Internationals.

It would certainly shorten tours and reduce the cricket being played, which is always a good thing, for nothing dulls the senses like excess. Stephen Fleming was less severe, suggesting a spot of nip and tuck: remove the middle overs, which is when the one-day game drags, he said. “I have said for a long while that one-day cricket is under threat from T20 cricket,” said the former New Zealand captain. “I can see that from the sponsorship point of view and viewers’ point of view and TV rights. So a time will come soon when a decision has to be made. I have played county cricket for a few years, and I liked the 40-over format (Pro40). Fifty overs still has a place, but 40 overs is another option when the game goes forward besides T20 cricket. The 40-over game just takes the boring part out of the middle stages, ensuring a quick top-half and exciting finishes. So it’s a fair compromise.”

Those still playing the game don’t want to see it go. The three captains at the tri-series in Sri Lanka – M.S. Dhoni, Kumar Sangakkara, and Daniel Vettori – said there was a place for it. Dhoni, although circumspect, said he loved one-day cricket in its current form. “Whether I say I like it or otherwise, it is bound to become masala news,” said the Indian captain. “Whatever I have in my mind, I will let the ICC know. But one thing is sure I personally love one-day cricket. I think it’s a real art to bat in one-day matches. And of course there is pressure from everywhere with Test, one-day and T20 cricket jostling with each other for place in world cricket. What would be the future of cricket or more so the future of one-day cricket (is a relevant question). But I would rather let the right people know about my view.”

Sangakkara and Vettori called for balance in scheduling. Both emphasised the primacy of Test cricket, adding ODIs and Twenty20 Internationals may then be played in whatever ratio the administrators saw fit. Neither called for a change in the format although Sangakkara’s comment that players had little to do with such decisions, they could make recommendations at best, but then it was up to the administrators, suggested he wasn’t sold entirely on how the game is being run. The most worthy idea in terms of format has come from Sachin Tendulkar.

“I am for 50-over cricket. I think we should have 25 overs a side to start with. I thought of this during the 2002 Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka,” Tendulkar told Times Now, a news channel. “In the finals, we ended up playing 110 overs against Sri Lanka. First they played 50 overs and we played 10 overs before the rain interruption. The next day, Sri Lanka again played 50 overs and in the end we were declared joint winners. I thought, 110 overs and still no result.

That is when I thought, we should have 25 overs first for one side and then the other, and then once again 25 overs for one side and then the other. Today, we can tell the result of close to 75 per cent of matches after the toss. We know how the conditions will affect the two teams. But it (his idea) is not too dependent on the toss because, for example, in a day-night match both the teams will have to bat under lights.

The conditions change very dramatically but this would ensure that it’s same for everyone.”

The trouble with the one-day format has stemmed from how fans have consumed cricket and how the administrators have designed the game in an effort to keep up. Entertainment has been defined by the number of boundaries hit.

Cricket was conceived as a battle between bat and ball, not as an exhibition of hitting. Limited-over cricket stood out in the beginning because it offered a contrast – and a definite result. But when it became anonymous – one match not differing greatly from the next – it started losing its novelty. Twenty20 runs the same risk. The game’s administrators, who have proven excellent at making money, are confronted with important cricket decisions, a subject on which they’ve shown less stellar judgment.