There was a cook who had an alarming epiphany. Everyone loves Chicken Tikka. And everyone loves ice cream. He created his new masterpiece – the Chicken Tikka flavoured ice cream. It was the sort of dish even Mike Gatting stayed away from.
Its logic, unfortunately, is also the sort of logic that forms the crux of most suggested solutions to salvage ODI* cricket, with the two-innings-twenty-over plan leading the pack.
The alleged shortcoming of ODI cricket is that it has no USP, it is neither here nor there (unlike Tests or ODIs which are apparently clearly here or there, or more correctly in the case of the latter, it is everywhere). To offer an arbitrary fusing of both the formats as a solution to ‘revive’ ODI cricket sounds suspiciously like the work of John Buchanan. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, because it ends up creating a wholly new mutant entity to add to the already chaotic international cricket scene rather than address the issues of the present ODI format. The way to address your constipation problems, presumably, is not by giving you an attractive new nose job so you don’t feel so bad about yourself.
The single biggest problem threatening ODI cricket is the lack of context. Dead rubber matches alone are boring, and the current ODI schedule is infested with whole ‘dead rubber series’. ‘Reducing the number of meaningless matches’ is an ambiguous solution that leaves plenty of space for gray areas and subjectivity.
A more comprehensive, simpler and infinitely more effective solution is this: make all ODI international matches qualifiers for the World Cup.
This doesn't require a massive change in the bilateral-cum-triangular template that ODI cricket follows today (though God knows we need a change there like Malinga needs a mirror). All it needs is some modifications and adjustments to the existing ICC ODI Rankings system. Or better still, a simple win-loss-tie points system, where teams get points for every win in any international ODI match they play (with a weightage system for strong/weak/home/away matches thrown in), and top x number of teams at the end of the qualifications period (say, 3 years, starting from the end of each World Cup edition) go through to play the World Cup.
Let's look at what are the major implications that come with this and how to deal with them.
The first implication is that the number of teams in the tournament will go down. Going ‘Woooohooo!’ and exchanging high-fives sounds about the right way to deal with this.
It does raise a few issues that need to be addressed, though. The associate nations will be denied the rare opportunity to compete alongside their big brothers and play at the highest platform of the game. Reducing the number of countries participating may make it less ‘global’, making it just a faux ‘World Cup’. Also, the system may inadvertently knock off one or two of the ‘star’ teams, killing the cup before it begins.
These problems are not without simple solutions. The eliminated teams and the associate nations can be arranged to play a quick series of playoffs in a knockout format for three to five days preceding the actual tournament. Better still, the practice matches that the qualified teams play can be arranged to be played against the eliminated teams and associate nations, thus adding an edge to even the warm up games, and not lengthening the tournament. The qualified teams have nothing to lose; the others get a final chance to play in the main tournament.
The advantages of this are manifold - there is a clear order to the flow of international cricket. Everything moves in procession towards one Holy Grail. Every match has a consequence. As the final stages of the qualifiers approach, audience interest can grow not just in the matches involving their own country, but also in those of others which will impact their fortunes in a big way.
ODI cricket suffers from a few other maladies, though more peripheral in nature than the one discussed above. Its basic 50-over grammar means that unlike T20, several matches will be such that their outcomes can be guessed well before they end, and several more become one-sided. This can be solved by implementing an idea being currently discussed for Test cricket – creating a merit-based two-tier system, ensuring that all contests are evenly balanced (at least on paper).
The basic home truth is that the concept of bat versus ball is still attractive. A cricket match in any format which has a high standard of sport with some context will still have an audience and is sustainable. TRP ratings of the Australia-Pakistan finish outdid ratings of some of India’s matches at the World T20 in June, coming exactly a day after newspapers carried articles about how TRP ratings of ODIs are dropping.
It is unlikely that from here on, ODIs, with even the ODI World Cup, will regularly outmatch the popularity of T20 cricket. It, however, doesn’t mean that the format is in an irrecoverable decline, it merely means that it is on a downward commercial curve. The measure(s) suggested above will not make ODIs more popular than T20, but it will maintain 50-over cricket as an enjoyable and sustainable format of the game. A situation that will certainly be an improvement for the sport from its current confused state.
* One Day International, or ODI, still refers to the 50 over format. T20s would be the ‘HDIs’ i.e. the Half-Day International (or whatever), built for the High Definition audience.
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