LIMITED OVERS CRICKET – A BOON OR A BORE?
I have tried hard to love the one-day game, I really have. Back in the days when I played it, I can honestly say that I enjoyed it – for two main reasons. First, being a bits-and-pieces player and a good fielder, there was more of a chance of my playing. ‘Bits-and-pieces’ was all the rage then. Nowadays, everybody’s a specialist. And secondly, I enjoyed the atmosphere, the drama, the excitement, the tension and the large crowds. One-day cricket was still a novelty. I didn’t care about the niceties of the game, the concept of ebb and flow, the culture and heritage of the traditional form over its brash younger brother. All I cared about was winning and playing well, though it has to be said that the two were not always convergent. “Nothing like a dull, boring win,” Mike Taylor, a team-mate in the Hampshire side would announce, gleefully rubbing his hands. That is until he heard that we had to play an exhibition match after despatching Glamorgan by lunch, “because the spectators haven’t had their money’s worth.” Can you imagine that today? England being forced to play a beer match, after beating the West Indies by an innings? I would not have wanted to be the official informing Ben Stokes of that decision.
But over the years, my enthusiasm has waned. With a handful of exceptions (World Cup thrillers in the main), the catalogue of one-day internationals, to say nothing of the domestic fixture lists, is gathering dust in some long-forgotten corner of my memory. Why should this be? Much fine cricket has been played, often by the foremost exponents of their craft, yet the narratives of these encounters remain stubbornly unrecalled. Who won the one-day series, England v West Indies ten years ago in 2007? I have no idea. (Having looked it up, I can inform you that the West Indies won the NatWest trophy 2-1). The Test match series, which England won 3-0, is more easily recalled for Pietersen’s peerless batsmanship and Panesar’s 23 wickets in the four match series, the most in either side. I remember thinking here are two players who are going to be the mainstay of the England team for years to come. Now, I wonder what on earth happened to them. Oh, and it was the coldest day ever recorded in a Test match - at Headingley, where else? I do not recall the exact temperature but I do remember the Yorkshire faithful, usually a hardy bunch, huddled in the stands, swathed in layer upon layer of clothing. The West Indians looked as if they would rather have been anywhere else on the planet. It would only get worse for that proud cricketing nation, it was generally believed, and that turned out to be true. The point is that memorable matches need a context within a greater struggle for supremacy, usually to found in a series rather than a collection of one-off encounters. Great series live long in the memory; the limited overs competitions just seem to come and go.
Furthermore, there is a predictability about the way one-day games often unfold. Everybody knows his job, whether with bat or ball in hand or as a fielder and performs it well, to be fair. Batsmen rotate the strike (ie, take quick singles), bowlers bowl their allotted overs and fielders scurry around in their appointed positions. Even the power plays point to regulation, not intuition and judgement. I guess at heart I have a nagging mistrust of a format in which the main impulse is to stop the opposition scoring rather to take wickets. You have to take 20 wickets to win a Test match (declarations excepted) but nobody cares how many wickets are taken in a limited overs game, just so long as you have scored more runs (Duckworth-Lewis excepted). It all seems a bit too formulaic. More often than not, which team is going to win becomes achingly obvious long before the last rites are administered.
Lest I be accused of being a curmudgeon, let me reiterate there is much to admire in the current limited overs game. The power and ferocity with which the modern batsman despatches the ball is simply breathtaking. Bigger bats, smaller boundaries, more muscular batsmen have all made a difference but it is the mindset that has changed. Attack is the name of the game. No ball is bowled that cannot be struck to the boundary so let’s try and do it. And having done it, let’s do it again. And again. Totals that once seemed unattainable are now par for the course. As a spectacle, it is all rather compelling. As for the innovative shots that have been developed over the past few decades……well, players of my vintage are left speechless. And in our open-mouthed expressions of incredulity there is more than a hint of envy. If only someone had taught us to do that! And that! Incredible.
We are often told that fielding has improved out of sight since the shift of emphasis towards the one-day game. I’m not so sure. Catches are still dropped and misfields still occur. There have been fine fielders in any generation but I do agree that the overall standard has improved. There are no passengers in a team anymore; third man as a place of refuge for a carthorse no longer exists.
One area that has not improved in my opinion is bowling. A good game is talked by the bowling units, as they like to call themselves, what, with all their different, unorthodox deliveries, but they seem to have lost sight of the time-honoured dictums of line and length. With balls peppering the stands in a recent ODI I was attending with my son, I turned to him and asked, rhetorically, “What’s happened to all the maidens?” He gave me the kind of look that suggested he ought not to answer that one.
So, where do I stand with limited overs cricket? It is what it is. A crowd pleaser. It brings in the spectators. Nobody should be so pure-minded as to ignore the basic fact that cricket needs an audience and if one-day cricket fills a yawning gap in the market then no sensible chief executive or administrator can look that gift horse in the mouth. My only beef is that the traditional form of the game is becoming increasingly marginalised, literally so, as these matches are consigned to the start and end of the season. It was almost winter when we were at that ODI in Southampton last week. It was in fact still September – just – but it felt very much like the last gasps of a dying season. The West Indians looked as if they couldn’t wait to get on that plane. Again. For all of the 50 overs – well, it was actually 38 by the time England had polished off their opponents - Chris Gayle had his hands in his pockets. Again. No excuse for that but he knew the game was up once he was dismissed, six hours earlier.
It was now nearer Bonfire Night that the shortest night so my final point is a plea to Tom Harrison and the ECB. Please give Hampshire an Ashes Test and no more ODIs when the leaves are falling and the football is two months into the season.