The biggest talking point in the run up to the ODI cricket World Cup is the fact that the tournament is hardly the talking point.
The schedule itself was released only in the last week of June, which is another first in terms of such a huge delay (the event kicks off on October 5 at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad with the 2019 finalists England and New Zealand facing off).
With less than 100 days to go for what was once decidedly the marquee event in the ICC calendar --- this is the 13th edition of the tournament and India for the first time is playing the solo host (in '87, '96 and '11, it was the joint host along with its sub-continent neighbours) --- the buzz is missing.
Or so it seemed to me.
So just to cross-verify with what the young followers of the game actually feel and know about the upcoming 10-team World Cup, I sent out a small set of questions to a bunch of 14 youth, all in the age of 20-30 (they are sons and daughters of close friends and relatives).
Even though the sample size is small, these are all avid cricket fans who can reel out stats of all IPLs and some of who actually travel to other countries to watch Test matches. The point is a certain amount of logical extrapolation can be made on the realities of world cricket based on their responses.
A private poll that threw up no surprises
Out of the 14, only eight knew that the once mighty West Indies will have no place in the 10-team World Cup. The Caribbean team crashed out in the qualifiers that ended recently in Zimbabwe.
Oh yes, when asked where the qualifiers were held, only five answered correctly. Seven didn't know that the Netherlands has qualified at the (arguable) expense of the West Indies. And 13 didn't have a clue as to who was the top run-getter in the qualifying matches (for the record, it was Sean Williams of Zimbabwe). Again, 13 didn't know for sure the format of the qualifiers.
These are all headline questions and they weren't quizzed on individual players or their performances. After collating all their answers and responses, I again sent out another mail asking the simple question: Why didn't they follow the qualifiers as seriously as they tend to follow some other cricketing events.
All 14 of them veered around to the view that the 50-over game no longer ignites their interest as it once did and none followed the exploits of Afghanistan's ODI team in securing an impressive series win against Bangladesh in Bangladesh two days ago.
Of course, this is no new revelation. This was just to confirm my feeling about the lack of excitement for the upcoming World Cup and the lack of enthusiasm for the 50-overs cricket in general.
The obituaries for the ODIs have been written about ever since the T20 format came to stay and the IPL and other national T20 leagues took root. But then again, death notes were penned for Tests when the 50-overs game became a rage in the late 80s and the 90s.
Ahead of the 1996 World Cup, one newspaper even had a story headlined, "can Test cricket see the next decade?". Of course, we now know the death of Test cricket has been vastly exaggerated.
But it seems the same cannot be said for the ODIs with any amount of certainty. For, as things exist in international cricket now, the 50-overs game is neither one thing nor the other. It looks an oddity caught between the evolved charm of Tests and the frenetic excitement of T20s. It looks stale and pre-packaged entertainment, and nothing looks organic.
The last World Cup saw two balls per innings being used and three different field restrictions per innings. Yet, most of the matches fell flat, and the tournament now retrospectively seems great, more due to the fact that the finals turned out to be one for the ages.
On a night destined for sporting greatness --- who can forget the epoch-making finals between Novac Djokovic and Roger Federer at Wimbledon that ran parallel in both time and tension during the last moments? --- England was declared the victors against the hapless New Zealand on the technicality of more number of boundaries scored.
Though it was in the rules book, it was like deciding the Miss World competition on the basis of fewer vowels used in the Q&A round. We know it sounds silly. But so were the rules of the World Cup.
Killing it with overkill?
Anyway, the problem for the ICC is it is not clear what it wants to do with the middle format that is no longer appetising to both the players and the spectators.
There is already an surfeit of cricket, what with franchise cricket being a reality across nations --- now IPL has got a secure window in the ICC calendar and professional T20 league is set to happen in the USA.
Bilateral ODIs have become pointless exercises except for the big teams (read: Australia, India and England) to test out their up-and-coming players in the international arena. Many international cricketers have openly said that there is not much relevance to the longer form of the shorter form of the game.
That the ICC and the international boards are flailing around cluelessly can be gauged by the fact that just ahead of the World Cup, the 50-overs Asia Cup is scheduled to be held from August 31 to September 17.
Of course, the tournament is mired in uncertainty due to India-Pakistan relations, and the schedule of the matches are still to be out. But more than the clash of the arch rivals—India and Pakistan have been grouped together along with Nepal, and the men in Blue and the men in Green will play each other for a minimum of two times in Asia Cup—the tournament has nothing much to offer for the lay fan.
There can be three different takeaways if the two teams make it to the finals --- a possibility that cannot be ruled out.
If it happens, it will be an overkill ahead of the World Cup where the two teams are scheduled to meet in the round-robin phase on 15 October in Ahmedabad. (The politics of India and Pakistan cricket is such that the latter's participation in the WC is still not cleared by its government, which is waiting to know how the Asia Cup, hosted by Sri Lanka and Pakistan, will pan out).
Meanwhile, the BCCI has confirmed that India will be participating in the Asian Games 2023, which is to be held in Hangzhou, China from September 23 to October 8. Since the dates clash with the World Cup, India is sending its 'B' team to the Asian Games. India and Pakistan can also meet there. The saving grace is that it would be T20s. The point is—if boredom doesn't kill then an immoderate number of matches will.
All of these points to the lack of thinking among the plenipotentiaries in the boards and ICC. Whether ODI cricket can be retired is a question that ICC has to contend with at some point in the future. But for now, it can certainly do with allowing some tweaking within the format.
The much ballyhooed splitting the total 100 overs as four innings of alternating 25 overs between the two teams is an idea whose time has surely come. The suggestion was mooted, including by powerful voices like Sachin Tendulkar, long time back. But the ICC, in its own wisdom, is sitting on it inertly.
The ODI is not on its deathbed. But its health is surely an issue. When such a problem arises in an individual's life, medical guys usually advise lifestyle change. For the 50-overs game it may lie in realigning it to two-innings per side format. Yet, the doctors at the ICC don't seem keen to write out such a prescription. Or perhaps they are not really bothered!
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