Is cricket becoming a two-format game?
In its 51st year, and after a near four-decade long domination as cricket’s poster child, ODIs run the risk of being sidelined as a structural necessity and nothing more.
Since 1996, only four times have India played less than 15 ODIs as part of bilateral, trination or quadrangular series in a year - in 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2021. The pandemic made 2020 a year of exceptions but 2021 will go down as the year India will have played the least number of 50-over matches - six - since 1980. Two T20 World Cups in consecutive years can change priorities but there is a bigger trend at play here. Between 2006 and 2015, India didn’t play more than nine T20Is per year. Since 2016, they have not played less than 11. The bump might seem small but in absolute terms we are talking one more tour accommodating T20s over ODIs. Tests and T20s seem to be the preferred bilateral schedule for most boards when it’s not close to a 50-over World Cup. Where does that leave one-dayers?
To begin with, no other version of the game has been as tweaked as much as ODI cricket. From 60 overs in white flannels to 50 overs of pajama cricket with one ball per innings and field restrictions for 15 overs in the 90s, ODI cricket went on to offer three different types of fielding arrangements (first 10 overs followed by two five-over Powerplays that in different years were at the discretion of either bowlers or batters before they were changed again), two balls per innings, a Supersub and the ability to challenge umpires’ decisions with a video referral system. The need to make constant changes can only point to one thing - something is not working out with the format.
In comparison, Test cricket - barring the day-night version that is gaining popularity and doing away with the rest day - hasn’t changed much over time. There are more results now and even draws are not as drab as they used to be. T20 cricket too seems to be the simplest form of the bat versus ball game that has the provision for a Super Over if scores are tied, a not so rare result these days. ODI cricket lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum - neither too pure a format nor too high-octane - making it a lot more predictable.
“It’s kind of sandwiched between T20 and Test cricket so all the more reason things need to be different with ODIs,” says former India opener WV Raman.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) plays a big role in creating this predictability, preparing featherbeds in their tournaments, allowing for boundaries to be shortened, bats to be thickened, tinkering with the bouncer rule and introducing new balls from both ends (to avoid discolouration of the white ball) resulting in the extinction of reverse swing in ODI cricket. Run fests are too commonplace as a result. In 2018, when England posted a world record total of 481/6 against Australia, Sachin Tendulkar labelled the two new-ball rule a “recipe for disaster”. “We haven’t seen reverse swing, an integral part of the death overs, for a long time,” Tendulkar tweeted. Earlier this year, World Cup winner Gautam Gambhir urged the ICC to reconsider some of the rules or bowlers would be “reduced to programmed bowling machines”. “They have to try and ensure each format has its own form of charm,” says Raman, who has had coaching stints with Tamil Nadu, Bengal, KKR, Punjab Kings, the National Cricket Academy and the national women’s team. “It’s about time they tweaked a few rules in the ODI. If nothing else, for novelty you have got to do it. One of the things they (ICC) can try is to provide a little bit more for the bowlers. Tweak the fielding restrictions a little bit.”
As much as benign pitches and lopsided rules are to be blamed for the run fests, there is no denying T20 cricket has also eroded a few basics. Shot selection has been a major casualty, with batsmen showing less patience and not rotating the strike enough. An example is the ODI series Pakistan lost in England earlier this year, being shot out for 141 batting first in the first ODI and then getting dismissed for 195 in 41 overs in the second, chasing 247 in a 47-over game. Inzamamul-Haq lambasted the side for not utilising their full quota of overs. “Pakistan team is trying to play T20 cricket. They were going for big hits and were not rotating the strike. Pakistan played 151 dot balls and yet they didn’t bat 50 overs,” Inzamam said. “Every batsman is playing four dot balls and then going for a hit. You need to rotate strike and give time to yourself in ODIs otherwise you will only score 150 or 190,” he said. This has had a trickle-down effect in T20 cricket as well. Take for example the 2021 IPL match where Kolkata Knight Riders needed 30 off 30 balls at 98/5, chasing Delhi Capitals’ 127/9. At that position, KKR would have been well-served not taking a risk and getting the win in singles and twos. Yet in their overzealousness to achieve a quick win, they lost two wickets in the process.
Run rates in ODI cricket are a direct benefactor of the T20 style of batting. Between 2000 and 2004, the average run rate in ODIs never breached 5. In 2005, the year T20Is started, it became 5.10 before hitting 5.5 in 2015. Since 2011, it has never gone below 5. Between 2000 and 2008 - the year the IPL made its first splash - there were 76 innings of 300 or more. Since 2009 that number has almost doubled to 138. Helped by the dew factor in many grounds, more teams want to perfect the template of chasing, rendering a large number of ODIs very predictable.
Not just that, cricket boards quickly realised that T20Is - with a primetime span of just three hours compared to a seven-hour long ODI - allow for smaller tours to be arranged without compromising on the broadcasters’ deals that pay according to number of games irrespective of the format. This fundamentally altered the composition of white-ball cricket. Consider this: Between the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, there were 437 ODIs and 14 T20Is involving India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa in bilateral series and tournaments comprising three or four teams. That changed to 353 ODIs and 188 T20Is between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups.
In an effort to give ODIs more relevance, the ICC has started a two-year long ODI Super League with the 2023 World Cup in mind, mandating 13 teams to plays three ODIs against eight other teams - four series at home and four away - meaning each team plays at least 12 ODIs each year. But that is still almost a third of what popular ODI teams like India, Australia and Pakistan used to play every year in the 90s and the 2000s. Sharjah has ceased to be its old self, quadrangulars are extinct, and with Australia not hosting their annual trination series any more since 2015, ODIs have no other way of existing apart from ICC events and the odd bilateral series. The commercial angle too can’t be overlooked, feels Raman. “When you have the World Cup, that year or in the leadup to it a team needs to play only Tests and ODIs on a bilateral tour. They need not play T20 because as there are already a lot of franchise leagues going around. That is one way you protect the 50-over format. If you give a spectator the option of watching all three formats, time wise and all the excitement he gets, he would opt either for Tests or T20. So one-dayers will struggle a bit. They have to try not to play all formats all the time.”
With T20 selling cricket like no other format has in the past, ODI cricket now has to rely on getting the timing right. It didn’t seem to do that, for example, earlier this year when India hosted England for three ODIs in Pune. When asked about playing 50-over cricket in a T20 World Cup year, India captain Virat Kohli carefully put forward his reply: “Look, it is a difficult one. Scheduling is something that is not in our control. For us, in international games, every game is important and every game has value. It is an opportunity to represent your team and for us, that remains the sole focus. Yes, along the way as I have said in the past, scheduling and workload are something everyone will be very aware of. It is important to consider how much cricket you are playing. Players need to be spoken to and consulted with all around.”
One-day cricket began as an experiment to ensure spectators didn’t return home without watching a ball bowled after three days of an Ashes Test had been washed away. In its 51st year, and after a near four-decade long domination as cricket’s poster child, ODIs run the risk of being sidelined as a structural necessity and nothing more. The ICC however has assured the 50-over World Cup will remain its biggest event. But it happens every four years. And we also don’t know when the next Champions Trophy will be held. ODIs may not be phased out any time soon but it will need more than an ICC-sanctioned cycle to keep the current generation hooked. Innovation could be the key here. “Balance between ball and bat,” insists Raman. “There is a lot of talk about it. But somehow it gets overlooked because the season and the Future Tours Programme (FTP) are so packed.”