Could 50-over cricket become a thing of the past?

This season was due to play host to the last Pro40 domestic tournament in England, but thanks to its raised popularity and a drop off in excitement about the 50-over format, a 40-over tournament will replace the 50-over Friends Provident Trophy from next year. Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands will join the 18 counties to make up three conferences of seven teams each, with most matches being played on Sundays.

But what of One Day Internationals? Can England expect to perform in the most prolific international format if they do not play it at domestic level? Is it not a priority to prepare for the 2011 World Cup in the sub-continent?

Many agree that the revolution of Twenty20 cricket is a threat to the 50-over game. Spectators and television viewers are finding the eight-hour matches on the long side and the ICC’s powerplay innovations have done little to ignite any spark in the middle periods from overs 20 to 34. Crowds are no longer excited by defensive field settings and batsmen who push for four singles an over.

To contain the risk of Twenty20 threatening the game’s other formats, the ICC imposed a limit of two home Twenty20 Internationals per country per year. England’s two home fixtures were both farcically washed out in Manchester this summer, so the only international limited overs action enjoyed by the English public this season was a major drubbing from the Australians in a tedious seven match ODI series.

Ironically, the stuffy old chaps at the ECB see themselves as innovators of the game. Twenty20 cricket was invented in England and now the ECB is calling for an end to the 50-over format. While broadcast rights for ODI’s have been signed up until 2015, the ECB looks certain to ask ICC to conduct a formal review of the 50-over format after the 2011 World Cup. A 40-over format seems likely to be ECB’s preference going forward.

A year ago, David Lloyd called for a revamping of the ODI game. After commentating on many domestic Pro40 matches, Bumble said: “What we’ve found is that there are no dull periods in Pro 40 cricket. We’ve seen some fantastic games in that competition that have kept crowds on the edge of their seats from start to finish. I’d like to start a campaign to have 40-over internationals along with Test matches and Twenty20.”

But it is no certainty that the other ICC members will endorse the ECB’s mandate. The powerful BCCI are yet to make their intentions known and sponsors and television channels will obviously prove equally important role-players in any restructuring of the game.

Even with the right partners on the ECB’s side, the process could well take some time, for nothing happens quickly at the bureaucratic ICC. For at least a few years, England, who are a dismal seventh in the ICC world ODI rankings, will rely on 40-over cricket to prepare themselves for 50-over ODI’s and World Cups.

ECB chairman Giles Clarke likes the business sense of 40-over cricket and feels the decision is justified from a cricketing viewpoint as well: “The leading one-day team in world cricket – South Africa – does not mirror 50 overs at domestic level and, provided Powerplays and fielding restrictions were the same as the international format, the skills required were very similar.”

Cricket South Africa seems likely to review its 45-over domestic competition after the 2009/10 season with some stakeholders advocating innovation in a tournament which is no longer followed as closely as the domestic Twenty20 competition.

But Geoff Miller, England national selector, does not share Clarke’s finance oriented sentiments. “If all we are playing is 40-over cricket then I have a problem with that,” he told The Timesnewspaper.

“My job as national selector is to win cricket matches and if we do that, it makes money along the line, as will happen with the Ashes,” he added.

England veteran Paul Collingwood sided with Miller, “We have always said we want county cricket to mirror international cricket. It’s as simple as that.

“No matter what we are playing it is important they get all the experience before they enter the international stage – about how to play in certain situations.

“If you’re not playing the 50-over format of the game it is going to be a little bit of a hindrance coming in.”

When Spinspoke to Johan Botha, the South African spinner who recently captained his country to home and away ODI series victories over Australia, his views echoed Collingwood’s.

“A few have said 40 could be the next 50 and I see why they advocate it – crowds can come later and leave earlier and it is likely to be more popular on TV. But I don’t think they should not do it just yet. 50-over cricket is a great form of the game and domestic matches should mirror international ones.”

Batsmen seem keener than bowlers on shortening matches. This becomes especially apparent when you tell them that the new format is likely to consist of a ten-over powerplay, a five-over bowling powerplay, and a five-over batting powerplay. This would mean that half of the 40 overs would be bowled to a restricted field. Messrs Gibbs, Sehwag, Gayle and McCullum, lick your lips.

As the South African big hitting all-rounder Albie Morkel told us, “There will be much less room for bowlers to perform well but I think I will enjoy the additional powerplays!

“50-over cricket is starting to feel a bit long but that is because everyone is comparing everything to Twenty20. The skills are the much the same in the longer game and I do feel that domestic and international formats should be the same.

“Shorter matches will definitely lead to closer games too – we often see in Twenty20 matches that the best side does not always win. But if you are going to change the game, then why not make a big change? 40-overs is just a rain-affected ODI, why not make a real change to the game and go for two innings of 20 overs each?”

Sachin Tendulkar recently suggested that 50-over games should be scrapped and replaced by two-innings matches of 25 overs each, citing that “75% of One Day Internationals are decided at the toss.”

South African coach Mickey Arthur told Spin: “I think first and foremost it is imperative that we sustain all three formats of the game – Twenty20, ODI and Test match cricket.

“I ultimately do see ODI’s being reduced to 40-over affairs, but I don’t have a problem with that. More wickets in hand and more powerplays will lead to exciting cricket and will hone the bowlers skills, which is definitely a good thing.”

It may be obvious that shorter games make more financial sense – indeed the vote was decided by 15 counties to three in favour of 40-over matches next season. But have the ECB management made a decision that will come back to haunt them at international level? I am not so sure.

England’s showing against Australia in the recent ODI series frankly couldn’t have been worse. The domestic setup may not mirror the international one for the next while, but international cricketers play so little domestic cricket these days that it may not overly matter.

South Africa made it to number one in the 50-over rankings while playing 45-over cricket domestically. But the real reason behind that country’s ODI success is that its domestic league consists of six strong franchises, not 18 weak ones.

Furthermore, Cricket South Africa divides its domestic season into concentrated spells of each of the four-day competition, a Twenty20 tournament and a 45-over tournament without any undue overlap in fixtures. This means that players can focus on one format of the game at a time.

In England, any number of the 18 County sides could play a Championship four-day match, a Twenty20 and a 40-over game all in the space of a week. Not only does the team composition change several times a week, but batsmen haven’t even got time to work out whether the ball is red or white before they have to decide whether to leave outside off or reverse paddle it over the ‘keeper’s head!

The ECB needs its head checked.

This article appeared in the November 2009 edition of Spin magazine.

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