India vs England: Why ODI cricket, the sport's middle child, is losing relevance

How many of you remember England’s last tour of India in 2012-13? That was the last time a team had beaten India in a Test series on home soil, as many of you would recall, with England winning the series 2-1. Some of you may even remember those audacious shots by Kevin Pietersen in his counter attack against Indian spinners at Mumbai, or Monty Panesar beating Sachin Tendulkar with a ripper to take his off stump in the same match. Now without using Google, how many of you remember the result of the bilateral ODI series that ensued. A few of you may struggle to remember India winning it 3-2. Hardly any of you would recall the venues of the games or how the games were won or lost.

 India vs England: Why ODI cricket, the sports middle child, is losing relevance

The whole bilateral competition format is almost unique to cricket. AP

The whole bilateral competition format is almost unique to cricket. The length of a Test match ensured that the most meaningful form of competition would be between two teams playing each other back to back. In football, a random game between arch rivals Germany and England is called a “friendly” and it hardly captures the imagination of global press. In tennis, no matter how big The Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal rivalry was at its peak, no one would buy the idea of organising a five-match series between the two champions. Lack of context takes the life out of even the most keenly contested sporting match-ups.

Bilateral ODI series have struggled for relevance for a long time. At times, they were even looked at as an acclimatisation exercise when the ODI series was scheduled before the Tests. Today, in the age of franchise based T20 cricket and a packed cricket calendar, that identity crisis is bigger than ever.

Players like AB de Villiers are choosing to stay away from packed international calendars while staying committed to playing IPL . Mitchell Johnson took early retirement from the rigours of international cricket, when he is still capable of producing a spell of four overs for three runs and three wickets as he did in Big Bash League semi-final the other day. As the international workload keeps getting hectic and the franchise pay cheque keeps getting fatter, players are happy to give up on their international duties in a bid to play longer.

When Dhoni resigned as Test captain, he admitted that in India it is hard to have split captaincy. What he didn’t admit was the fact that in his last two series as captain of the ODI team, he had to play with teams where key players were rested to prepare for more important Test series. It was getting increasingly clear that if Kohli is getting to lead India’s best eleven in Test cricket, then he and not Dhoni is the natural leader of Team India.

ICC has recognised this middle child syndrome of cricket where ODI cricket is overshadowed by it’s younger and older siblings. The World Cup still remains the most coveted prize in cricket but other than that, ODI cricket feels neglected. Like most neglected kids, ODI cricket has tried to respond by faking the swag of the younger and cooler T20 format. With new fielding restrictions to hide “those awkward middle overs”, ODI tried to dress up just like T20. Heck, it even tried to fool us by introducing the free hit rule borrowed from T20.

While scores of 350 getting chased regularly wowed us for a while, the smash fest soon lost its novelty. In trying to get rid of the dull middle phase of an ODI inning, we took away the thrill of a big hit. A six isn’t even guaranteed to be on the highlight reel these days, you have to hit them into the second tier of the stands to stand out and be noticed.

By allowing five fielders outside the 30-yard circle in the final ten overs, ICC has tried to tilt the balance back towards bowlers slightly. What ICC and cricket boards continue to ignore is the quality of pitches for international games. It doesn’t matter how many fielders you are supposed to have on the boundary if a quality new ball bowler is getting some assistance from the pitch. The third ODI between India and England played at Kolkata gave us a glimpse of this for a while.

It is hard to keep the attention of the spectators if you take the ebbs and flows of the contest between the bat and the ball out of the game.

An ideal ODI inning needs to have phases where bowlers dominate. It doesn’t matter how many runs the batting team scores. If a team has batsmen adept at negotiating those tough few overs and then big hitters capable of capitalising on the initiative then big enough scores can be made even on surfaces that provide assistance to the bowlers.

ODI cricket evolved and became popular as an express version of Test cricket and an ideal ODI inning still needs to have a narrative similar to a mini Test match. T20 will continue to influence how players approach both ODIs and Test cricket, but beyond that, tinkering with the rules of one format based on the success of other will only result in an identity crisis for one format or the other.

Frequent modification of rules is a brush too broad to achieve any meaningful systemic improvement. We have seen examples of that in recent times when governments have chosen to disguise simple rule changes as reforms without focusing on fundamental improvements in the system. For international cricket, that fundamental improvement lies in better pitches and a more meaningful schedule.

Updated Date: Jan 25, 2017 13:31:35 IST