Time for an obituary for ODIs? Why the 2023 World Cup may be the last of its kind
A crowded calendar, dominated by the World Test Championship, T20 internationals and the proliferating franchise cricketing tournaments, is likely to squeeze out the format.
On 5th January 1971, Extraneus was an inadvertent witness to cricket history albeit via grainy images on a black and white TV.
After the Third Test between Australia and England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was abandoned after heavy rain washed out the scheduled first three days, officials, displaying uncharacteristic initiative, scheduled what is now recognised as the first one-day international (ODI) match. The objective was to pacify an unhappy cricket public and mitigate serious financial loss.
Played as a 40 eight-ball overs per side game, it was not terribly different to conventional cricket played at a slightly faster, caffeine infused pace. Australia won by five wickets against an England side, more experienced in the shorter form, which would go on to regain the Ashes 2-0.
Limited over cricket was not new having been played in England since 1962 primarily on Sundays. However, no one had thought seriously about expanding its remit. That first international ODI game was far from exciting. The idea lay dormant for several years.
ODIs established themselves with the 1975 Prudential World Cup, held in England over a couple of weeks featuring eight teams.The inspiration lay in the Women's Cricket World Cup held two years earlier. The idea of a tournament involving multiple international teams had a longer history - the 1912 triangular Test match tournament between Australia, England and South Africa. The success of the 1975 event ensured that the limited over format became part of international cricket.
The real impetus came from World Series Cricket (WSC), the brainchild of Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, who when refused broadcast rights by the Australian Cricket Board, created his own cricket circus of tests and ODIs between Australia, the West Indies and a World XI made up of a polyglot collection of ethnicities led by former English captain Tony Grieg.
WSC experimented with elements now taken for granted. Originally, ODIs resembled a shorter (60-over) contest of traditional cricket played in whites with a red ball. WSC introduced floodlit day-night fixtures, white balls against black sightscreens and coloured clothing, leading to traditionalists mocking it as ‘pyjama cricket’. It was an attempt to attract physical and TV audiences. Eventually when WSC was disbanded after Packer gained TV rights to Australian cricket, ODIs and many of the innovations persisted.
Outside of the World Cups, the plethora of bilateral and occasional multi-lateral series played has meant that most games are now rarely remembered. But ODIs changed cricket at the sporting and business levels.
The cricketing alterations were primarily focused on increasing action and urgency, though it was not as dramatic or rapid as often assumed.
Test cricket before the advent of ODIs was generally unhurried. Englishman Trevor Bailey’s nickname ‘barnacle’ spoke to his adhesive rather than aggressive qualities. But even before ODIs, plenty of teams scored quickly – Don Bradman’s 1948 Australia test side scored a then world record 404 runs for the loss of three wickets on the last day in 344 minutes (albeit off 114 overs which says something about past over rates). There were plenty of quick-scoring test batsmen - West Indies (Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Roy Fredericks, Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Alvin Kallicharan), England (Denis Compton, Ted Dexter, Colin Milburn) and Australia (Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Norman O’Neill, Richie Benaud, Keith Stackpole, the Chappell brothers, Doug Walters).
It would also be wrong to assume that ODIs automatically led to fast scoring. In the 1975 World Cup, overwhelmed by England’s 334 off 60 overs, Sunil Gavaskar, in a bizarre performance, batted through the whole 60-over innings, hitting just one boundary and finishing with an unbeaten 36. India scored 132 for 3 losing by an embarrassing margin.
Over time, an emphasis on quicker scoring and better fielding emerged. Vivian Richards turned the 1975 final with athletic runouts of three key Australian batsmen.
The impact on bowlers was more nuanced as limited over cricket was generally geared to batsmen and run-scoring to avoid early finishes unpopular with audiences. This led initially to a proliferation of defensive rather than penetrative bowlers. Over time, genuine fast bowlers and spinners, especially difficult to read wrist spinners, came into the game as the mantra became that the best way to prevent the opposition scoring was to dismiss them.
All side-effects were not positive. Batting techniques changed not always for the better. Bowling shifted from repetition -- hitting the same spot with similar deliveries -- to bowling different balls constantly to confuse the batsmen. A wide yorker may save runs but is unlikely to ever get a good batsmen out, especially in the longer form of the game.
The need for contributions with bat and ball increased demand for allrounders. While itself not undesirable, it led to a revolving cast of ‘bits-and-pieces’ cricketers who were neither one thing nor the other. A quick 30 runs or a wicket at an important part of the game was more valued than more substantial contributions.
ODIs breed impatience amongst both players and watchers. However, it was noticeable that the most successful sides, such as the West Indies (late 1970s/ early 1980s) and Australia (late 1990s/ early 2000s), played conventional cricket with highly traditional virtues.
Perhaps the most lasting cricketing benefit was different. Wins by historically less successful test playing nations, India (1983), Pakistan (1992) and Sri Lanka (1996), were important in democratising the sport. The larger elements of luck, conditions and the lottery of a singular match-altering performance were accentuated in the shorter format.
The business implications were the most lasting. ODIs alongside WSC increased focus on improving the appeal of cricket to existing and new audiences. Administration shifted from amateurs, usually former cricketers of varying business acumen, to professionals who could not differentiate between a leg break and a limb fracture and assumed a googly was some Indian dish. The language became the vacuous phrases of commerce – ‘product’, ‘target market’, ‘segmentation’, ‘unique selling proposition’, ‘audience reach’.
The ODI formula was honed around commercial diktats of a shorter time frame (a day rather than multi-day test matches), a guaranteed result and drama, natural in tournaments with gladiatorial knockout encounters. Changes in rules, such as fielding restrictions and the infamous Duckworth-Lewis methodology for shortened contests, sped up games and increased the theatre.
At venues, razzmatazz was added. Television coverage adopted WSC developed techniques -- multiple cameras, slow-motion replays and breathless commentary. A modern viewer would find earlier broadcasts, using a fixed camera from one end and, if lucky, one from side-on and restrained observations of experts, amusing. In time, this ushered in decision review systems, including ball tracking, sound analysis and hot spots, which today adds the frisson of controversy over umpiring decisions.
Sponsorship and advertising became important. Vice -- cigarettes and alcohol -- featured strongly until banned. Betting, both legal and illegal on games, largely irrelevant fifty years ago, became important with ultimately deleterious consequences such as fixed games.
The biggest change was in broadcasting rights revenues. Sports offered relatively cheap content. On a cost per hour basis, cricket is competitive relative to, say, the production expenses of a sitcom. Cricket administrators became focused on delivering audiences to advertisers. With the shift away from free-to-air television to subscription cable and now streaming services, the ability to target consumers with attractive demographics drove the economics.
The overdue emphasis on the commercial aspects benefited the game but especially star players, who were well paid and had unparalleled opportunities to monetise their cricketing prowess. The wealth accumulated by stars such as Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli and Shane Warne would simply have been impossible in early times. It is interesting to speculate what Bradman, Keith Miller, or Sobers, all highly marketable personalities of their times, would reap in the modern game.
However, ODIs always contained the seeds of their own destruction. In reality, the power plays, at the start and end of innings, were interesting. The middle overs of turning over the strike and trying to score at a run-a-ball while keeping wickets in hand for a final assault became formulaic. It was mainly weighted towards batsmen -- and bowlers, except on the odd occasion, were the supporting cast. The tension between bat and ball needed in cricket was mostly weak. There were also simply too many inconsequential ODIs being played.
T20 is essentially limited overs cricket taken to its limit. It is a logical acceleration of the cricketing and business elements of ODIs. It borrows heavily from the 50-over format but excised the frequently duller middle overs. The compression from 8-9 hours to 3 hours fits a more time-challenged age. Its appeal to middle-class young families and people without traditional interest in cricket is central to advertising and broadcasting appeal. The frenetic action, methamphetamine rather than caffeine driven or a high-octane modern action film than a subtle thriller, is geared to forgettable short-lived entertainment.
The rise of T20s may ultimately mean the demise of ODIs. A crowded calendar, dominated by the World Test Championship, T20 internationals and the proliferating franchise cricketing tournaments, is likely to squeeze out the format. The limited number of high quality players increasingly cannot fit in the exhausting number of games and find themselves choosing when and where to play, usually based on monetary considerations. Broadcasters and advertisers see better value in concentrating on the shortest format.
The implications on the game itself of the shift from 50-over contest to T20 matches depend on your perspective. It will probably push the trends evident in the transition from test to ODI to its extremes.
It would not surprise if the 2023 ODI World Cup were to be the last of its kind. It is rare that someone, in this case, your scribe Extraneus, is able to be an observer at the birth and death of something, other than finite human existence, in a lifetime.
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(Feuilleton is historically a part of a European newspaper or magazine devoted to material designed to entertain the general reader. Extraneus, in Latin an outsider, is a former financier and author. A reasonable club cricketer, he took up a career in money markets because he wasn't good enough to be a professional cricketer and needed to make a living especially as no one offered him a job as a cricket commentator or allowed him to pursue his other passions.)