Friday, 13 September 2013

Get rid of bilateral ODIs, bring back the tour match

Since the Ashes finished, we've had two largely pointless, but fun, T20Is - surprise surprise: 1-1 draw - an Ireland v England ODI which showed how far the Irish had come, and how far they have to go, and a Scotland v Austalia game which showed the gap between Ireland and the rest of the Associate nations.

All of those games had some meaning to them, or at least some fun. After them has come the long slog of a five match ODI series, so far lead by Washouts by two to one over Australia, England a distant third. Even without two rain ruined games, it's hard to see the interest or relevance for these tacked on matches.

The advent of the ODI in 1971 came about nine years after the first domestic one dayers, in an experimental Midlands Knockout Cup. The format has changed a lot since both those days. The Midlands Knockout Cup and the early days of the Gillette Cup were played over 65 overs, and the first ODI over 40 overs. Both were hastily scheduled, experimental ventures, but ended up as the future of cricket..

By contrast, the advent of t20 was a clearly thought out marketing ploy, to take the game to a new audience. The first domestic t20 came in 2003, and it became an international format within two years, when Australia and New Zealand donned throwback costumes and larked about at Eden Park.

Both formats so enlarged the international calender that another type of cricket faced being squeezed out. No, not the Test match - although you can make that argument - but the tour match. Back before the ODI of course, teams would tour a country and play two or three months of tour matches as well as the Tests.

The Australian invincibles who didn't lost a match on their 1948 tour of England, played all 17 First-class counties including Yorkshire and Surrey twice each, plus Cambridge and Oxford, MCC, Durham, Scotland twice, South of England, Gentlemen of England, HGD Leveson-Gower's XI. That amounted to 31 First-class games (including the five Tests) plus three non First-class games. They even played three warm ups in Australia before they left, more than most teams tend to while on tour these days.

England are better than most, playing at least a couple of warm ups on most tours, but these are often glorified net sessions, with players retiring, and teams declaring to try to give everyone a bat. Some teams will play just one or even none at the start of a tour. What with three formats being played at international level, if teams are thorough, tour matches are needed in each.

Abolishing bilateral ODIs could solve several problems, giving the space for more proper competitive tour matches, increasing T20I series to three matches, but also reducing the amount of international cricket, and the amount of games between two teams rotating as fast as they can. It would also free up a little time for players, especially those who don't play t20, to play domestic cricket.

You'd get more competitive Test cricket, with away teams getting a chance to adapt to conditions. You could have local Associates providing the opposition four tour matches, driving up their skills, Ireland for tours to England, Afghanistan for tours to Pakistan in the UAE, Canada for West Indies tours. Test cricket improves and the Associates have the chance to  improve too.

The only problem with this is really that the gap in skills between the two forms of the game is too much to bridge during tours, but this should be alleviated with the increase in tour matches. The end of ODIs may be a good thing for all formats, it could become just a domestic game, and the standard of Tests and t20s could only go up.

This is obviously unlikely to happen. The ODI, whilst the third choice of many hardcore fans, is still a money spinner, particularly in India, who held out on T20 cricket up until 2007 to protect the ODI cash cow.

They are also a good middle ground for Associates, giving more of a grounding of skills than t20, yet still holding hope of an upset against full members. Still, Associates could keep playing 50 over cricket amongst themselves, whilst the full members could give it up outside World Cups, and tour matches would give them a chance to  A mix of Test and t20 players and skills could convene every four years for the only ODI event many care about.

The question about ODIs is not just whether they are interesting, it's whether they are relevant, and whether they fit into any context. Frequently in bilateral series they're not. Keep them just for the World Cup. That's got context.

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