With the world in lockdown and the immediate future of cricket appearing bleak, the sport is looking to take a left-turn few anticipated would arrive this early. Two bits of news from the last few days could prove to be the harbinger of the future of cricket.
a) National contracts dished out by the Pakistan Cricket Board and New Zealand had notable absentees in Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz, Tim Seifert and Colin Munro, all key players in the shortest format of the game.
b) England indicated that they might look to field different players in different formats this year when cricket resumes to stick to the hectic schedule that's on paper.
Currently, England, West Indies and Bangladesh are the only major teams to give out separate white and red ball contracts. Australia, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Ireland and Sri Lanka have a clubbed contract where players are separated into different categories based on varying criteria. Afghanistan do not give out national contracts at all.
While this was okay at a time T20 was evolving as a format, the chasm is so wide now and the influence the format has had on ODIs and Tests, even if indirectly in the form of players giving up red ball cricket to take up T20 franchise deals (think West Indies players or Adil Rashid), is mind-blowing.
In the last few years this is particularly profound with ODIs losing the middle ground between Tests and T20s and tilting dangerously in the direction of the latter, with high scores and monumental run-chases becoming common place. Red ball cricket, meanwhile, has gone the other way with bowlers recording a strike rate less than 60 in 2018 and 2019, the first time it has happened since 1922.
The indications are pretty clear. The road map is clearly showing a divergence of the formats with ODIs and T20s likely to take a similar path for now at least and Tests going the other way.
On an episode of The Pitch Side Experts (TPSE) podcast presented by Tom Moody, Ian Bishop and CricViz senior analyst Freddie Wilde, a few pertinent points were discussed that indicate why there is a distinct divergence in the different formats now and why multi-format players are rarer.
"In T20 cricket and ODI cricket, batsmen are the ones doing the attacking. That is their primary job. They are looking to score. The bowlers in white-ball cricket, although not exclusively, are in a way defending; they are trying to stop runs from being scored. In Test matches, it's the other way around. As a batsman you are focused on survival. According to CricViz data, more than half of the balls are defended by batsmen. In T20s, it's the opposite. It is that fundamental shift from being an attacker to a defender that forms the foundation of why different techniques are more effective in different formats," Freddie says on the podcast.
"In the last 10 years, we have seen scoring rates in ODI cricket skyrocket. We have moved from 5 an over to 300 being chased down easily. ODIs have become more attack oriented and the bridge (that ODIs are between Tests and T20s) is weakened. Maybe now, it is even harder to adapt from a white ball player to a red ball player. For instance, despite having two new balls in ODIs, they swing less than they used to. Between 2006 and 2009, we saw 0.83 degrees of swing movement. Since 2015, it is down to 0.65. That is a significant drop of swing movement. Pitches are also doing lesser. The boundaries are brought in as well. Divergence of batting conditions in different formats is at the heart of that," Freddie goes on to explain.
That all-format players are reducing is without a shade of doubt. Since 2018, only 44 players from the nine major Test nations have played 5 Tests, 10 ODIs and 10 T20Is for their country. Although there are a few notable absentees in the form of Kagiso Rabada, Mitchell Starc, Ravindra Jadeja (who misses out by one game) and Mohammed Shami due to workload management, the list pretty much sums up that there are very few all-format players.
A glance at the list of individual players also tells us that quite a few players were tried in the longest format based on their limited-overs form but failed to adapt. Jason Roy, Aaron Finch, Haris Sohail are glaring examples in this regard. There's Rohit Sharma on the other side of the spectrum too, but given his previous woes in the format (Tests) and the low sample size (all home Tests), we will reserve judgement.
Countries like South Africa, Australia and West Indies have very few players crucial to them across formats. India (7), Pakistan (7) and Bangladesh (8) field the most players across formats but a lot of that could also be due to the fact that they play a lot of games on flatter surfaces.
A glance at the current ICC Rankings show that there are just two players (batsman or bowler) who feature in the top 10 rankings across formats - Virat Kohli and Babar Azam. Expand it to top 20, and there are six batsmen and two bowlers, still far from significant.
All of this spirals towards one common conclusion - teams can, and probably should, focus on specialists in each format. With the post-corona period promising more hectic schedules, there might no longer be the luxury to play the Test, ODI and T20I leg of a series in sequence. Instead, we could see an Indian Test side and an Indian T20I side play at the same time.
That is the need of the hour too, considering how variant the formats have become. It will also benefit the boards as they get to arrange more matches a year, hence allowing them to make up for the financial losses incurred now and boost their earnings significantly in the future.
England are first to jump on board with Ashley Giles recently stating that England could field different limited-overs and Test sides in the near future.
"At the moment we've got a schedule on paper that looks great, that we can fit everything into July, August, September, but it's a squeeze and there's a lot of cricket there. So again that probably leads us to a place where we're operating two separate teams. It's a lot of people, it's a lot of logistical pressure and organisation. Part of this is about high-level performance and getting sport back on that people want to enjoy, but there is also an economics angle to this, a financial element," Ashley Giles, the managing director of England cricket said as per ESPNCricinfo.
England were also the pioneers in creating separate white and red ball contracts when in 2016 Andrew Strauss wanted a better deal for limited-overs cricketers. The focus on white-ball cricket led England to a World Cup triumph last year, a significant u-turn from their dismal performance four years before that in Australia - New Zealand.
At the same time, it is worth noting that England's Test team was less than convincing in the four years they focused on white-ball cricket. Chris Silverwood, the current England head coach, was appointed with the aim of bringing England's Test team back to standards.
Separate limited-overs and long format sides could also mean separate coaches and support staff as well as players, leading to undivided focus on the goals of the particular team in a certain format.
If reports are to go by, India are also pondering doing the same with a BCCI official stating that India will field two teams if necessary. “We are considering all kinds of scenarios at the moment. This (two teams) has already been done. If need be, we have to do that too. We need all formats to co-exist. Considering the time we have lost, we have to be prepared for all scenarios. India has a big pool of players, so we have started basic discussions," an official from BCCI told as revealed by New Indian Express.
The concept isn't entirely new. In 2018, Australia had to play the final of a T20 tri-series at Eden Park, New Zealand, and then take the field next day for a warm-up game in South Africa ahead of a Test series. Australia had to go with two entirely different squads in that scenario.
While separating out the limited-overs and Test teams, boards will also have to look at overhauling the contract system and go for individual contracts for each format. At a time when T20 mercenaries are growing thick and fast and focus on International T20s is significantly reducing, retaining the best T20 players for the international games could depend on how the boards can give them more in terms of security.
The changes that appeared to be bubbling along the surface in the pre-corona period could just be hastened when the world returns to normalcy. That the financial interests of the board, players and broadcasters are also in sync with this should mean that a major change could be in the offing in the cricket landscape.
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