Three hundred sixty-five matches. 505 wickets. An average of 23.53 runs per stick.
If Wasim Akram thought his staggering numbers were enough to express an opinion on the 50-over format of the sport, he now knows he was dead wrong. He has been hung, drawn and quartered this week on social media for having the temerity to suggest the ICC (International Cricket Council) scraps One-Day Internationals (ODIs) as they have outlived their usefulness.
His exact words in response to the existential question on the format were, “I think so (ODIs should be scrapped). In England you have full houses. In India, Pakistan especially, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, one-day cricket, you are not going to fill the stadiums.”
Leaving Akram’s opinion aside for a moment, let’s look at the facts behind that statement.
Dipping attendance numbers
A research piece written by Abhinav Sacheti, Ian Gregory-Smith and David Patona in 2015 tracked ODI attendance between 1980 and 2015 in Australia and England, two nations where percentage stadium attendances in any case far surpass those in other nations, particularly for Test and ODI cricket.
Their findings were that there had been a steady deterioration in attendance numbers in Australia across all ODI matches regardless of opposition. In England, the data was skewed by high attendance at matches involving the host and a top team, while matches against lower ranked sides were poorly attended. They concluded the paper with a warning that with the rising popularity of T20s, the authorities needed to do something different if they wanted ODIs to survive.
In 2018, a Sydney Morning Herald report on attendance during the season talked about the declining numbers in the ODI series against South Africa, which had gone from 24,342 to 17,680 and 5,500 over the course of a week or so. It concluded with a telling comment, “One-day internationals, predominantly outside of the World Cup, have long lost the lustre they once had.”
Seven years after the research report, the shortest format has skyrocketed in popularity beyond anything we could have envisaged then. The recent action of Cricket South Africa (CSA) in effectively jeopardising its chance of qualifying for the 2023 ODI World Cup by cancelling a bilateral series in Australia that could have gained it vital points, in order to support its new T20 domestic league, is proof positive that the warning of the authors of the 2015 paper and the conclusion in the 2018 Sydney Morning Herald article, have come to roost.
One can indeed argue that cricket today is ‘consumed’ differently and online streaming and television numbers are more meaningful than bums filling stadium seats. A comparison between the two most recent World Cups across different formats - events that attract far more interest than bilateral matches - shows that the trend is not different.
The previous T20 World Cup (2021) gathered 167 million television viewers over 112 billion telecast minutes. Video views over all digital channels numbered a staggering 4.3 billion. The 2019 ODI World Cup, the most watched in history thanks to the meteoric rise of digital media over the past few years, gathered 101 million television viewers and 3.6 billion digital channel hits.
‘They are doing it just for the sake of doing it’
Akram’s next comment in justification of his opinion is equally deserving of discussion rather than the derision it has drawn. “They are doing it just for the sake of doing it. After the first 10 overs, it’s just ‘OK, just go [at] a run-a-ball, get a boundary, four fielders in and you get to 200, 220 in 40 overs and then have a go in the last 10 overs. Another 100. It’s kind of run-of-the-mill’.”
If there is something incorrect about that statement, I haven’t noticed it yet.
A few years ago I was in Sydney on work straddling a weekend. Over dinner that Friday night with my mentor and friend, veteran cricket writer Kersi Meher-Homji, I realised that the season’s first ODI traditionally played between Australia and New Zealand was slated for Sunday. Kersi and I arranged to meet that morning outside the SCG (Sydney Cricket Ground) before he proceeded to the press box and I to my designated seat.
I would be lying if I said my most vivid memories of that match are Aaron Finch’s hard-hitting ton or Trent Boult’s wickets. Both happened, but what sticks in my mind is the sheer boredom of sitting on my prime seat above the sight screen watching mechanical, non-attractive cricket between the 20th and 40th overs in both innings.
As a lover of the sport, brought up on the miracle at Lord’s in 1983 and the 1985 Melbourne magic of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Ravi Shastri, this was an alien experience. It was the first time that it struck me how meaningless ODI cricket had become. Squeezed between adrenaline-induced entertainment of the T20 format and the strategic machinations of the five-day format, one-day cricket, I realized that day in Sydney, was past its sell-by date.
In the years since, the evidence has just mounted in support of that view. The just-concluded ODI at Trinidad between West Indies and India (on July 22nd) saw both teams score at an average of over six runs an over. But to Akram’s point, between overs 20 and 40, neither clocked much more than five. The bizarre concatenation of circumstances that led to the drama of the 2019 World Cup final, is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.
The Test-T20 complementarity
As a writer who cares deeply about the history of the sport, I have long been convinced that the continued existence of Test cricket, whose imminent demise has been predicted for over a hundred years, is critical. Along with First-Class cricket, which is its feeder, Test cricket is the bedrock of producing technically competent cricketers. As important are the strategic lessons and resilience it demands from players. The recent resurgence in interest in the format even beyond Australia and England augurs well for the sport in general.
The fact that Test cricket attracts spectator interest only when the top five to six teams in the world play each other should be no deterrent. There is in fact no logical reason why every team should play every format. I would argue that the sport can grow faster by propagating the T20 version among new cricketing nations given that cricket is competing for a slice of the overall global sporting audience. There is in fact absolute complementarity in this dual approach of preserving the purity and long-term benefits of Test cricket with the commercial benefits of T20.
What it does is leave one-day cricket, at least the bilateral matches in the format, falling between the cracks. But that arguably is merely a stage in the evolution of the sport. The question is whether something can be done to turn around the format to bring interest back.
As Charles Darwin, the father of the Theory of Evolution once reminded us, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Only time will tell how the ODI fares in the evolution of the species that is cricket. In the meantime, perhaps we should think twice before dismissing the views of one of the greatest to have ever played the format.