SUNDAY MAGAZINE

ODI: Much longer innings?

Americans call cricket `baseball on valium' while any change to the game is immediately condemned by its fans as `Americanisation' of a noble sport. Yet any change to one-day cricket, however bizarre, ought to be welcomed.

SURESH MENON

CHANGING RULES: The ODI between New Zealand and South Africa in Christchurch, 2004. PHOTO: REUTERS

CHANGING RULES: The ODI between New Zealand and South Africa in Christchurch, 2004. PHOTO: REUTERS  

CRICKET is blessed because at the international level it has two versions (with a third already padded up). But Tests and one-dayers just happen to be played using the same equipment and by the same players. In reality, these are different sports. Don't be surprised if within a decade there are separate governing bodies for them, one bent on retaining the pristine nature of the longer game, and the other determined to make as many changes as possible to the shorter game till they have less in common than cricket and baseball. This is best for both forms.

Americans call cricket "baseball on valium" while any change to cricket is immediately condemned by its fans as "Americanisation" of a noble sport. Coloured clothing, night cricket, white balls, fielding restrictions — all that is accepted as bright and contemporary in one-day cricket today were once condemned thus.

Yet, what traditionalists fail to see is that in this very Americanisation lies the salvation of the longer game. Cricket can experiment on one version, compromising for the sake of modernity and marketing while keeping the other unchanged. If the longer game gave in so easily, it would soon become unrecognisable from the one played by Lala Amarnath and Don Bradman.

Any change to one-day cricket, however bizarre, ought to be welcomed. The International Cricket Council's decision to introduce an "active" substitute and more flexibility in the field restrictions are both radical. They do interfere with the laws of the game, but something had to be done soon if it had to be lifted from the morass of predictability. Between overs 16 and 40 (that is half a 50-over innings), one-day cricket is the most boring sporting spectacle on earth, comparable in intensity and excitement to watching a golfer walk between holes or a bridge player think.

Tactically, the game has reached a dead end. Like in ticktacktoe, every move is known, as is every response to every move, and the element of surprise has been sucked out of it in three decades of international competition.

Now captains have a chance to bring the game to life by deciding when to call for the two sets of five overs each with fielding restrictions (after the first 10 overs). Of course this is artificial, but then so is the one-day game. One day cricket has satisfied the authorities' desire for more money and as a bonus, raised the level of Test cricket too. Fielding standards have improved, batting has become more positive, and if bowling has suffered, that has to do with the state of the wickets and the quality of the equipment too.

Suddenly, over the next 10 months (after which the ICC will review the rules), captains will be forced to think. This is good for the game. When should he call for the five-over restriction? Perhaps as soon as a new batsman walks in; or when one of his bowlers is on a roll and unlikely to be collared; or when a bunch of wickets has fallen and the batsmen are likely to be extra cautious anyway. These are the obvious choices — but as the rules reveal greater possibilities, and the sport throws up more tactical geniuses, we will learn more.

The substitute rule has been tried in first class cricket before, but only in violation of the Laws of the game. Imran Khan has written about a match in Pakistan in the 1980s in which one side changed its line-up at lunch having only then understood the true nature of the wicket. For those who think such things only happen in Asia, Gladstone Small (Warwickshire) had once bowled 15 overs against Lancashire when he received a call to join the Test team. He was allowed to go, with his manager D.J. Brown taking his place. Brown soon became the first substitute to take a wicket in a county match. But Small was not needed by England, and so he returned to bat, and to bowl in the second innings.

Now with teams going into a match effectively with 12 players, the bits-and-pieces cricketer will find it hard to survive. Why pick a half bowler and half a batsman when you can have a full bowler and a full batsman? Imagine if India fielded first, used Anil Kumble for his full 10 overs, and then brought in V.V.S. Laxman when they batted. The better players will get a longer run; better fielders will replace the slow movers. And who knows, Rahul Dravid might not have to both keep wickets and bat in the same match after all.

Some of the simplicity of the one-day game (remember when it was seen as a hit-and-run affair and little else?) would have been lost, and captains will have to be sharper, of that there is no doubt. But why have players reacted with such caution?

Perhaps a decade of the Code of Conduct has softened their reaction to any move by the ICC. If that is so, it would be a pity, because silencing dissent on important matters cannot be one of the aims of the governing body. The strong reactions have come from past players like India 's Ajit Wadekar ("it is unfortunate. Cricket must remain cricket, not become like soccer ... I foresee utter confusion"), Pakistan 's Asif Iqbal ("Twelve players is no proper cricket match. The game should be played properly, and we should have complete players, not parts of them.") and England's Jonathan Agnew ("I really do not believe that we want to see Americanisation of international cricket with a `bowling team' and a `batting team'.")

Ironically, the radical that was one-day cricket is now establishment, and faces competition from its cousin, Twenty20. The rule changes are partly in response to the growing popularity of the even shorter game. Still, it's a fair trade off. Fiddle all you want with the "modern" game, but leave the traditional game alone. No other sport has this luxury.

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