The end of 50-over cricket

This is a blog post – I wish I had more time to do the research and make it into an authoritative article but I’ll have to rely largely on my own memory. I will gladly accept corrections and additional references.

Test match cricket is a mature product. It is enjoyed by the knowledgeable consumer of cricket and it is not currently under threat from innovation or other market forces. Test match revenues grow and shrink – other sports become popular in some regions, poor results cause the dilettante to lose interest in others – but the product is sustainable.

It was thought in the 1960s and 1970s that the popularity of One Day Internationals might threaten test match cricket, but it has survived. Instead, it is the One Day International that is under threat. The disruptive influence is Twenty20 cricket, which has moved from your local sports centre to the international stage in a trice.

With hindsight, the One Day International looks a bit like the early plastics that were used in consumer products in the mid-twentieth century. Unsure what to do with the new material, designers tried to make it look like something familiar; wood, for example, or metal. Later when designers grew in confidence, plastics got their own identity and became part of the vernacular of product design. In cricket, Twenty20 represents the artificial product that is happy with itself and does not try to look like anything else.

The 50- or 60-over One-Day International is a compromise – short enough to finish in one day, but long enough to allow recognisable cricket to be played. Batsmen must build an innings in phases, bowlers must think batsmen out, captains exert pressure over time. These are all attributes of test match cricket that the designers of the One Day International thought were important elements to retain in the abbreviated game. It turns out they were needlessly conservative. The Twenty20 format has all the good things about longer One Day Internationals and none of the ill-fitting compromises. We no longer need to introduce ridiculous constructs like the PowerPlay to liven up the boring middle overs of a One Day innings – the PowerPlay is the whole match.

And the best thing for test match cricket is that the Twenty20 format is even less of a competitive product than the One Day International. It’s a tweet alongside an Economist article (which makes the One Day International the equivalent of a blog post I suppose – is blogging an ill-thought-out compromise?).

If I am right then the fault lines in cricket should by now be becoming visible. And what fault lines they are! In the West Indies an incompetent official governing body has been steamrollered by Allen Stanford’s unofficial Twenty20 competition. But this is a sideshow compared to the big beasts battling for control of India’s massive cricket revenue. In a remake of the Kerry Packer movie, but with 100 times the budget, the BCCI are in a face-off with a major TV company for the wallets of a billion cricket fans.

The root causes of each disruption are entirely different. Allen Stanford’s motives are unclear, but it is possible he sees Antigua as a potential offshore tax haven in the making, not just for himself but as the basis for an entire industry. He has followed the traditional path of rich people buying political influence in making contributions to many aspects of public life in Antigua and other parts of the West Indies, including the West Indies Cricket Board. Here may be the key to his thinking with the Stanford Twenty20 competition. Cricket is still a powerful cultural feature of the West Indies, and a sure way to win hearts and minds is to be seen to improve the standard of domestic competition and the international team. Sir Allen at first attempted to do this by making major contributions to the WICB. When he discovered that the WICB were capable of absorbing almost any amount of money and still not delivering anything of value to West Indies cricket he decided to do it himself. This has brought him into a slightly uneasy relationship with the WICB but such a helpless and hapless body is it that it has no choice but to work with him. Sir Allen can only succeed in the West Indies and Twenty20 will therefore become the major audience-drawing format in the region very quickly. Who will then stump up the money to sponsor a West Indies domestic 50-over competition?

In India, the battle is far less one-sided. On the one hand is the BCCI, with its massive established revenues and its control over the international governing body, the ICC. On the other side is the Essel Group (aka Subhash Chandra) which has launched a direct challenge to the BCCI’s authority with the Indian Cricket League (ICL). Now this is much more like the Kerry Packer experiment – entertainment mogul fails to win contract to provide TV coverage of cricket tournament so launches his own competition. Recruits squadron of has-beens and soon-to-retires with good name recognition. Pumps money at players. Players do what they are told.

Who will win? History shows us that when the governing body is threatened it will at first try to resist stoutly all innovation. Players will be threatened with a binary choice of career. Lawsuits will happen. For a time the professional entrepreneur will look like he is winning against the fuddy-duddy amateurs and politicians of the governing body. Then, when enough sabre-rattling has happened, the governing body will find that it is easier to embrace the change than to continue to fight a war.

The BCCI has already announced its own Twenty20 competition to take place in October 2008. It would not have done so without Chandra’s intervention. Whoever survives the battle royal in Indian cricket, Twenty20 will be the winner. Room will be made for it in the regular domestic and international calendars. It will not be test match cricket that gives way to make room for it.

Goodbye 50-over cricket. You will not be missed.


1 Response to “The end of 50-over cricket”

  1. 1 Dominic Sayers February 19, 2009 at 15:21

    The downfall of Allen Stanford is bad news not just for Antiguans who won’t get their deposits back from his bank, but also for the game of cricket globally. Sad.

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