Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A big blast from the past

Nostalgia maybe a dangerous and unreliable mistress but that doesn't mean some things really weren't better in the past. One-day internationals for instance.

From 2000 the ECB decided that the one-day international series should follow the first Test series of the summer rather than precede it as previously. In doing so they brought to an end those joyously irreverent and irrelevant three match series sponsored by Texaco which heralded the start of the international season. Irrelevant but from the fan's perspective, not pointless. On the contrary they gave you the chance to get your head around new fielding regulations, your eyes around new TV graphics and and your tongue around Sri Lankan surnames. They were the appetite-whetters, the sneaky 11.30 sausage roll before the main lunch. By the time the Tests arrived you were properly hungry.   

Aside from giving England's fringe players a chance to press their Test claims - an opportunity seized this week with uncommon relish by Josh Buttler - they were also a low pressure start for the visiting teams, most still contending with chilled fingers and frozen footwork. From 2000 all this changed and opponents were thrust into the frays of cricket's most demanding format when pitches were still the colour of a dollar bill. Objectively, the results have not been pretty. In the 37 Tests played in the May-early June slot, England won 26 and lost 2 with their last defeat being in 2006 (by contrast in high summer they won 29 and lost 16 of 59 Tests). There have been few good contests. You can point to the quality of opposition - Zimbabwe (2), Bangladesh (2), New Zealand (3), West Indies (3), Sri Lanka (3) and Pakistan (1) - but that doesn't change the point, in fact it reinforces it. These matches were afterthoughts or in the case of the opposition no thought or real respect at all.

Much is made of the legitimacy of home team pitch preparation, but if you schedule a Test for mid-May you know what you are likely to get - Headingley in the 80's. I remember watching the Bangladesh openers shuffle out in long sleeved sweaters with collars raised and wondering why the selectors didn't give Jimmy Anderson and Steven Finn a bit more time off and just bring back Steve Watkin and Neil Mallender. Aside from giving Anderson the chance to get that average below 30 (an increasingly desperate quest), it served little objective purpose.

So bravo ECB, even if a two match series is not ideal this season's international schedule is still the best from a cricketing perspective for some time. Anderson and Broad versus Sangakkara and Jayawardene in mid-June on a fair pitch should provide for a terrific contest, every bit as good, if not as commercially profitable, as the India series that follows.

Of course when I speak of a return to the days of the Texaco Trophy, the similarities really start and finish with scheduling. Back then coloured clothes, white balls and black sightscreens were still something strictly antipodean, whilst Duckworth and Lewis were just the solicitors down the road.

More importantly, you could write the playing conditions on the back of a beer mat. Today you need an instruction manual and a calculator, or an app. Back then captains' minds were focused solely on field placing and bowling changes, there were no power-plays or such like to worry about. But does this matter? No, of course it doesn't, not if the product is better as a result. But here is where my problem lies. It is palpably worse.

One-day cricket is like nature: the more you try to manipulate it, the more it resists and mutates. I'm no free market libertarian but forty odd years of regulation has proved only one thing, it is not the answer. In particular the obsession with the "problem overs" between 15 and 40, has never come close to being solved. A better question was why it needed solving in the first place.

In fact the problem has already been solved. You get rid of them, because that is effectively what T20 is, one-day games without the "boring bit". I'm not a fan of the format, but like Test cricket it is an honest product. The ingredients are written in big letters on the front of the package - if you don't like it, don't buy it. One-day internationals are no longer honest. They would have you believe they are the cool kid's elder brother: same smile, better car. The problem is that car is a Prius and, even if they are wrong, people don't think a Prius is cool. So what to do?

The answer is to stop trying to be cool and start being serious. Once again to go forward we need to look back. Growing up the Natwest Trophy was my favourite format. For one simple reason, I could go down to Old Trafford and watch an entire game of proper cricket in one day. Even then, with long school holidays, I didn't have time to go to an entire Championship match but the Natwest was the next best thing. Batsmen played themselves in, seamers bowled to more than one slip, sweepers were optional. It was never formulaic cricket.

I'm not suggesting a revival of the format, but of it's spirit. For example the 60 overs that encompassed a Natwest innings (the first World Cup was actually 65 a side) is not only too long, for the players in particular, but unnecessary. Test match scoring rates have increased almost as much as over rates have fallen. 50 overs would be plenty. The 60 over competition also had minimal fielding restrictions: 4 men inside the circle, a maximum of six on the leg side. I would remove every single non Test match playing condition bar one - leg side wides, but even these could be granted a more liberal interpretation than we currently see. By doing so creativity and original thinking would be encouraged rather than stifled. In essence it could do for the mental side of Test cricket what T20 has done for the physical.

We already see such creativity from captains like Michael Clarke and MS Dhoni. Without the shackles of the playing conditions, the possiblities are endless.  Undoubtedly the first few games would draw out some anomalies as teams grapple with this new found freedom but so what?  Nine, ten fielders on the boundary? Maybe, but six twos is still twelve an over. Eight on the leg side? Don't get your line wrong... 

I ask you, what would Shane Warne have come up with given such licence?

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