The 2023 ODI world cup is right around the corner and the excitement levels are now beginning to rise.
This is both surprising and unsurprising — while the ODI world cup remains the most coveted cricket prize for professionals and fans of the sport alike, the ODI format isn't exactly the big draw that it was for decades up until T20 cricket's take-off earlier this century.
Many an obituary has been penned for the 50-over game of cricket we call ODIs, short for one-day internationals, for over a decade.
As early as 2008, merely a year after the inaugural T20 world cup, some in the cricket fraternity had already begun predicting the end, or at least the fading away, of ODIs.
Former Pakistan captain Zaheer Abbas in 2009 that the 2011 world cup might be the last 50-over event before one-dayers are dumped in favour of the newer, shinier, shorter T20 format.
Australian leg-spin wizard Shane Warne was ahead of the curve — he had by then already ODI cricket on the chopping block.
Not long after, pundits like Tony Greig would express similar sentiments. “The 2011 World Cup was a success because it was played in India, but I can’t see even this tournament surviving,’’ Greig told sports journalist Ayaz Menon in 2012.
Over a decade and two excellent ODI world cups (2015, 2019) later, little has changed about how cricketers and pundits view the in-between format.
Many still think it is irrelevant, contextless, and likely lacking a future.
Like fellow-countryman Abbas more than a decade earlier, Pakistan cricket legend Wasim Akram, speaking on the Vaughany and Tuffers Cricket Club podcast in 2022, it is "quite tiring for a player to play one-day cricket" and that after the introduction of T20s, ODIs feel like they go on for days.
Speaking on a in December last year, wicketkeeper-batsman Dinesh Karthik said the cricket world cup in 2027 could be the last world cup played in the ODI format if things remain as they are, similar again to Abbas' 2009 comments.
The more optimistic of the lot, or those more inclined to ODIs, have said that the format could be made more appealing with just some tweaks. This school of thought is not without its antecedents.
Back in the 2000s, for instance, no less than Sachin Tendulkar proposed splitting up a 50-over innings bang in the middle for both the teams, thereby turning a two-inning ODI game into a four-inning match.
Less radical but still significant was former India captain Anil Kumble's to cut down the number of overs in a one-day game from 50 to 40 — an idea echoed by some others more recently, Australian Test opener Usman Khawaja last year and former India coach Ravi Shastri earlier .
For now, the modern ODI game is largely unchanged, save for the introduction in 2011 of two new balls in an ODI inning, a much-chagrined change, as well as the field restrictions, or "powerplay," effected in 2005.
Beyond speech, actions like England's talismanic all-rounder Ben Stokes calling it quits from the ODI game in July 2022 made a statement stronger than ever on the state of the once-beloved format.
High-profile batsman-wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock of South Africa, too, is following suit by from ODIs after the 2023 world cup, choosing to play only one format thereafter — no prizes for guessing which one.
“I am certain that every fan will enjoy seeing (Stokes) back in an England ODI shirt again,” England selector Luke Wright said about Stokes' return.
This is a subtle sign that, despite the apparent lack of interest in the format, the draw of the 50-over cricket world cup is much too significant to resist.
Eight T20 world cups and two Test championships later, the ODI world cup remains the world's top cricketing prize, while Test cricket firmly represents the sport's pinnacle.
ODIs' significant dip in form of late hasn't been arbitrary. After the excellent 2019 world cup, which came to a close with one of the best games of ODI cricket ever, the tide swung against one-dayers after the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly shut shop on all cricket for a while, followed by some cricket played to no venue audiences.
The T20 world cup scheduled for 2020 naturally got pushed to 2021, with another T20 world up waiting its turn in 2022. Thus, the years 2020 through 2022 offered much incentive to prioritise T20 games — both internationals and domestic league cricket, as preparation — while the struggling ODI format was pushed to the backseat, probably in a way unlike ever before.
"ODIs aren't too relevant this year compared to Tests and T20s," then India captain and batting great Virat Kohli in 2020 with two T20 world cups lined up ahead of him.
Perhaps, it was the reassigned priorities over the pandemic years that made ODI cricket seem more out of favour than it really is, these past three years.
This is not to say, of course, that ODI cricket is always interesting and only unfairly getting the rough end of the stick.
Bilateral ODI series sometimes seem like chores that carry little to no stakes other than some amount of national pride, while the true litmus test of a cricket team's competence is left at the altar of world cups, especially in ODIs, which come around only once every four years.
Besides, flat pitches have left ODIs feeling far too flat, as well.
Seeing a batting side or two whack the ball repeatedly to the boundary line and beyond for a large chunk of the 50 overs, turning bowlers into mechanical bowling machines, can make an innings feel, as Akram said, way longer than it is, lending it a drab predictability, so much so that it makes off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin "switch off the TV after a point."
But, perhaps, what ODI cricket needs is not a reduction in match time, and certainly not retirement altogether, but more lively pitches that offer all the facets of the game — batting, bowling, and fielding — a fair chance to shine and higher stakes, such as an upcoming world cup or contests involving multiple teams.
These conditions aligned in the Asia Cup 2023 and made it a fantastic cricket tournament to watch.
From spin bowlers uprooting a highly enviable batting line-up (Sri Lanka against India in the group stage) to a multidimensional batting masterclass (India against Pakistan in the league game) to fierce swing bowling effectively reducing an entire batting effort to a highlights package (India against Sri Lanka in the final) — pure cricket was on display in the Asian cricket tournament this year.
Far from the usual charge of being 'neither here nor there', the ODI games in the Asia Cup 2023 offered both the challenges of Test match cricket plus the thrill of the T20 game.
Time is, after all, an ally in one-dayers. It allows a team to mount a recovery after a bad phase, but can also pull a team riding sky high down into the dumps within a half-hour (India vs South Africa in the 2011 ODI world cup), livening up a contest that only minutes prior seemed like a foregone conclusion — the "ebbs and flows of the game" which Ashwin says was the greatest beauty of one-day cricket.
Letting the ODI game breathe and happily trace unpredictable, fascinating trajectories is the way to go for better health of the format. How to achieve that is common knowledge among experts and fans alike, but strangely not energetically considered.
When done right, one-dayers offer the story of a Test match, with a miniaturised version of its ebbs and flows, while also providing ample room for the slam-bang entertainment value of a T20 game, especially in the initial and final phases, or at different, unpredictable phases depending on the batsmen and bowlers in play, the tactics, and the pitch conditions.
If the ODI format can offer the best of both worlds, Tests and T20s, over a large part of one day, surely it's worth hanging on to. Clearly, what's necessary is to enable an even contest between the bat and ball, which, surprisingly, was on display on a few occasions during the 2023 Asia Cup.
For the upcoming world cup, the International Cricket Council (ICC) appears determined to level the playing field.
They are said to have come up with a 'protocol' that seeks to counter the dew, and therefore the toss, factor, which can have a significant bearing on the outcome of a game played in India during the October and November months by favouring the side batting second.
In this regard, curators have been advised to leave more grass on the pitch to ensure true surfaces and back up the boundary to over 70 metres. Such playing conditions might make the world cup games more interesting to play and watch.
But the buck doesn't stop at environmental factors alone. The teams' approach and composition will make a difference, as well. Long after ODIs had been predicted to die soon, England had found a way to play the format in a new and exciting way — simply by being ultra-aggressive.
The limited-overs England side, led well by Eoin Morgan, injected the middle overs, which often give the impression that both teams have settled for a draw, with fresh energy and purpose, unafraid to break down trying.
They went harder with their batting than any other team across all phases of the ODI game and, in the process, shook up the highly safe and predictable style of play that had become the norm over the years.
This may not be the route that another team takes now or in the future, but it definitely leaves the door open for adoption of new approaches in a seemingly stagnating format.
There are plenty of opportunities to try new ways, too. According to the ICC chief executive Geoff Allardice, cricket boards have incorporated "a healthy number of ODIs" in their 2023-27 cricket calendar.
"You won't see any significant change to the number of ODIs or proportion of ODIs being played" over these four years, he . As many as 281 ODI games are scheduled between 2023 and 2027.
Further, Allardice said they have discussed "not specifically about ODIs but a mix of formats within the calendar," noting that "countries and fans in different countries have different preferences with regards to formats."
At another time, the ICC chief had similarly “All three versions are important, and help us address commercial and fan preferences.”
But, what after 2027?
Earlier this year, the Lord's-based Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC)’s world committee, considered a guardian of the laws of the game, called for men's one-day international matches to be “significantly reduced” after the 2027 world cup.
Removing bilateral ODIs except in the year preceding 50-over world cups, they believe, would “increase the quality” and “create much-needed space in the global cricketing calendar.”
This is a starkly different approach than was adopted once upon a time when the shoe was on the other foot.
The introduction, and later proliferation, of T20s hadn't merely eaten into the ODI space; there were worries, and to some extent still are, that the sacred space occupied by the much-revered Test format might shrink.
Warne, who was mighty critical of ODI cricket and wanted to see the back of it, the extinction of Test cricket back in 2009. He had, however, called for proactive steps to save and promote the five-day game.
"It has to remain the ultimate, we need to promote it, push it and play an attacking style of cricket," Warne had written in the Daily Telegraph. "Test cricket needs an injection of something to capture fans across the world."
That same year, former England captain Kevin Pietersen , "I'd be a fool to tell you now that Test cricket will be here in 10 years' time."
More recently, former Australian captain Ian Chappell in 2021 that T20 cricket was increasingly "casting a dark shadow over Test cricket."
In 2022, Shastri said Test cricket will die in 10 years' time unless two tiers were introduced — six teams in each tier — and each tier played among themselves.
Despite such turbulent forecasts for Test cricket over a number of years, the format is now thriving — at least in its wide recognition as the apex format and, more importantly, as per viewer interest.
In an MCC Test Cricket Survey in 2019, an average of of the more than 13,000 responders from over 100 countries marked Test cricket as their preferred format to watch, follow, and support over other formats.
Former Sri Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara, who has been on the MCC World Cricket committee since 2012, cited India's win over Australia, Windies' win over England, and Sri Lanka's win over South Africa in 2018-19 as a driver of Test cricket popularity as well as "a real opportunity – and responsibility – for us all to cement the future of our superb longer form."
Many more riveting Test contests have taken place since, most notably Ben Stokes' Headingly heroics for an England win in 2019 and India's epic series win against Australia down under in 2021-22.
The Test turnaround has been primarily thanks to the commitment of many major current and former players towards the longest format of the game. Far from bowing out on the world stage due to the large-scale T20 infusion, Test cricket is currently the most-loved form of the sport.
If such an attitude shift, propelled by the will of the cricketing community, including the players, pundits, and boards, is possible with Test cricket, surely such an effort can be replicated for the ODI form of the game.
ODIs, thus, don't have to keep sitting at the brink of extinction awaiting that nail in the coffin. By enabling a fairer contest between the bat and ball, easing up the global cricket calendar to include all formats in the proper balance, and incorporating more triangular and, if possible, quadrilateral series, among other measures, ODIs can become the joyful affair that they have been for the longest time.
After all, a cricket fan doesn't want to watch less cricket, just less insipid cricket.
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