Sunday, September 26, 2010

Split Innings as unimaginative as ODIs now are

This season Cricket Australia, in their infinite wisdom, have chosen to experiment with the format of their annual One-Day cricket tournament. Long thought of as the best domestic competition in the World, probably for as long as Australia's been thought of as the best cricketing nation in the world, it finds itself now struggling for relevancy in a cricketing world where Twenty20 is king.

Although the Sheffield Shield is probably still the strongest first-class competition in the world, the Ford Ranger Cup has become lost in the midst of the imports boasted by the KFC T20 Big Bash as well as the loss of free-to-air broadcaster Channel 9's television rights. For the past two years, the only way to watch local one-day matches has either been to make it down to games or to pay $40 per month for Foxtel.

In order to arrest the decline, CA has decided to revolutionise the format of Domestic One-Day matches and split each team's fifty overs in twain. This move comes with the ICC's blessing as it desperately tries to stop the slide of the One Day International into triviality. This trial is to be undertaken when the “International” players have departed for the World Cup late in the summer. As in a first-class match, each team will bat twice unless of course the unthinkable happens and a side wins by an innings. Each team will receive 25 overs in each innings but the second innings will carry on from exactly the same point at which the first was finished. That is, if a number four batsman is 55*, then he will resume at that score. If a bowler has bowled eight overs out of the first twenty-five, then he will resume in the second innings with only two overs to bowl. Thus, it's very much a split innings rather than a two-innings T20.

The simple question is this: Why? I can understand that generally in day/night matches the side batting first tends to have the advantage simply because the cooler air and dew in the atmosphere creates a ball which moves through the air more easily. This in turn makes batting more difficult for the team batting second. The split innings format gives both teams equal opportunity to make use of both sets of conditions. Fine, fair enough, I get it – it minimises the impact of the Toss. But the toss has been such an integral part of cricket since it's inception that this move doesn't so much minimise it as make it irrelevant. Splitting innings only confusing the issue (Cricket isn't confusing? I live in Montreal, Canada. You try explaining cricket to someone who hasn't grown up with it. Now try with a split innnings. I thought so.) If it's “fairness” you worry about, you can explore the options regarding the 12th Man a little more – make the extra player available so that the finals squad selections are made after the toss. This would allow both sides to pick and choose their players depending on when they're going to bat. This is cricket and players should have enough skills to play in all conditions.

The problem is one of differentiation. For thirty years, the smash-and-grab routine was solely the dominion of the One-Day fixture. Now the baseball format, Sorry, now that T20 has announced it's arrival and dominates the money and public interest in short fixtures, the role of specialist short-form players like Shaun Tait and David Warner has become even more curious. One Day matches are now only seen as a pale imitation of T20, for better or for worse. The moment David Warner made his debut for Australia in an ODI was the day the death-knell sounded for international One Day Cricket. Because of his ability to cleanly hit a ball in the hit-n-giggle format, Australia took into an ODI a player not good enough to play for his state in matches of the same length.

There are plenty of options – and it's not like One Day cricket hasn't seen enough innovations in the past – but really, the game has existed on the International stage for forty years and there are too many defining moments to let it simply sail into the sunset unimpeded. Who could forget Steve Waugh running behind the sightscreen to catch Rodger Harper in 1989? Or Aaqib Javed's 7-for as a seventeen year-old? To condemn these moments to ancient history by the inaction or wrongful action of the ICC would be negligent on the same scale as the guy who inspected Chernobyl trying to save money by using candles rather than torches.

Without question, the best option is to decrease both the number of T20 and One-Day fixtures that each team plays, domestic or international. Restrict access – the first law of business, of entertainment even, has always been to maintain control of your monopoly and to restrict access to your products – reveal only what you have to.

The International Cricket Council and the Control Boards are obviously reticent to take this action. So perhaps the best option is to change One Day matches to make them so different from T20 that the two can't be mistaken – so that there can't be a comparison, as in Tests and 50-over fixtures. Change the goalposts, as it were, so it takes a different skill-set to thrive in the conditions laid down. In the 1990s the ICC experimented with having a new white ball at each end and with replacing the ball after thirty overs. Why not go down that route again? Swing the advantage back at the bowlers and watch real batsmen, those able to defend as well as attack. The next option could be something as left-field as a randomly-assigned group of fielding restriction overs, where a computer randomly generates three groups of three overs in which fielding restrictions must be in place. Why not give the team batting second one extra fielding restriction over? This would give the Toss more relevance and the captain's decision less of a fait d'accompli. Perhaps raise – or remove entirely – the limit on the number of short balls that the batsmen can face per over. The options are endless. But to plump for a split innings simply because it's easiest is unimaginative and easy – two words which diametrically oppose to the spirit of One Day cricket.

The point here is to sway the game rather than changing the game by looking at quick fix scenarios. One Day cricket has become safe, passé and predictable in it's “innings building”. As fans we don't necessarily want runs or big hits – we want entertainment whether that comes through wickets, great fielding or good batsmanship. The game started as an exciting experiment and has slowly become formulaic and staid - everything it set out not to be. It's time to reverse that, one complete innings at a time.

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