Last week, Ben Stokes made an unexpected announcement – he was in international cricket. The English all-rounder and test captain’s decision has many reading between the lines, looking for broader hints.
The jury is still out as to whether Stokes’s decision to move away from the one-day scene is a symptom of the larger crisis staring at the format. For reasons that many believe aren’t surprising, Stokes has chosen to maintain a two-dimensional focus: on test cricket and T20. In the process, this decision has only reinforced the growing scepticism on the place of the one-day format – with 50 overs a side – in world cricket.
Moreover, caught between the purist appeal of test cricket and the clock-friendly, fast thrill of T20, the one-day format has been grappling with a deep identity crisis.
There have been murmurs before about the relevance of the ODI format. The disquiet, however, is no longer through hushed whispers. After Stokes’s announcement, Pakistani bowling legend Wasim Akram for the format to be scrapped. These are strong words from someone who, apart from excelling in test cricket, was one of the greats of one-day cricket and was also a key figure in the 1992 team that won the World Cup in Australia. The titular championship had, to state the obvious, the same format.
But even if Akram’s call to do away with ODIs is seen as radical, there are many who feel such voices will only grow in the years to come.
The “drag” effect – something Akram has felt from the distance of the commentary box – isn’t a newfangled grouse against one-day matches. Even before the T20s radically reshaped attention spans for limited-overs cricket in the first decade of this century, different factors had questioned the competitiveness and engagement of the ODI format. The constant rejigs, such as the rules of powerplay, were less to do with achieving bat-ball balance and more about beating the “dull passage of play” resulting from hectic schedules with a high number of matches.
If the format itself wasn’t justifying its tag of being a shorter, snappier version, long-drawn tournaments based on the format also had little respect for a taut itinerary. For instance, one might recall that a few weeks after the conclusion of the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, former English cricketer and commentator David Lloyd had famously quipped that he had nightmares of the long tournament going on and on.
That isn’t a happy advertisement for a world premier one-day championship, more so when it was pitted in the 1970s as a flagship event of the compressed genre of a great sport. It wasn’t too long ago that the legendary Sachin Tendulkar had also suggested splitting ODI matches into two-inning encounters of 25 hours each.
The T20 format made the challenges even stiffer, especially given the way T20 made inroads into leagues the world over. Once it became the byword for instant cricket in international contests, the ODI format was always going to be gauged through the prism of the new entrant. As far as connoisseurs go, even ODIs had struggled to get their reluctant approval a few decades ago. The new kid on the block was despised but this made no difference to its growing acceptability as a fixture for governing bodies and viewers.
When it came to choosing the lesser evil, the esoteric vote was for the ODIs. But the mass numbers and attention span swung towards the T20s. Yet this didn’t mean ODIs couldn’t hold mass attention too. They continued to do so, but increasingly in parts or in iconic encounters, like the close finish of the 2019 World Cup final at Lord’s. It was as a compressed product that the whole-day affair began ceding ground to the tumult of a three-hour rush. But for cricket board bosses and the International Cricket Council, it only meant a lucrative triumvirate to milk – a schedule packed with test matches, ODIs and T20s.
Those changes, however, should not allow one to lose sight of the immediate concern of hectic schedules and burnouts that force cricketers like Stokes to prioritise the formats. While big names have opted before to intermittently skip matches to retain focus and fitness, something had to give in the longer run. For all-format players like Stokes, moving away from one of the three formats was always a lurking danger. In many ways, it has less to do with the varying appeals of the formats and more to do with how bilateral cricket tours are being scheduled, with back-to-back matches rolling out. The lure of revenue from broadcasting rights has turned grounds into sites for millions of TV sets and mobile screens, leaving no breathing space for performers as well as viewers.
The pandemic-forced bubbles and restrictions only added to this schedule squeeze of top-notch international players. In hindsight, the ICC could have used that period to smoothen the rough edges of the commerce state of the game interface. In April 2020, the great Caribbean cricketer Michael Holding had remarked that the Covid-forced break in the cricketing calendar could be a blessing in disguise, as world cricket needed a moment to introspect on the direction it was taking in pursuit of relentless commercialisation.
“Everybody has just been head-over-heels charging down the hill, looking for every dollar available,” . “But can we just pause a bit, hit a plateau for a while and sit down and look and see if everything is fine? There is too much cricket being played, for one.”
But the months that followed belied such hope. It was, in any case, quixotic, given the ICC’s lack of imagination with schedules and the health of the great sport, and its sharp eye to mint every available day on the cricketing calendar.
Amid this cold reasoning, test cricket continues, thanks to its quaint and sublime appeal. To borrow a social scientist’s take, it survives as a critique of the industrial revolution in modern sports. But for the remaining two formats, it’s a race against time to win. In this duel, while the shorter T20 format has an edge, more imaginative planning by cricket administrations could very well make T20s and ODIs supplement each other, rather than compete for the same attention of millions of followers.