Friday, 25 November 2011

The Case for ODIs

A lot has been said over recent weeks about the "death of test cricket". Yet while people were signing petitions and marching on the ICC to demand that test cricket stays alive, it appears that one of the other formats of the game is in a terminal state.

ODI cricket has been on the decline for a while, arguably (as with test cricket) since the introduction of the evil* twenty20 to the calendar. (*not actually evil) It's been fiddled around with more than any other format, with powerplays, new balls at each end, free hits and general bending of all sorts of rules in order to freshen it up and give it some pizazz.

The main gripe with ODIs is that they're a bit unnecessary and boring. Everyone loves test cricket, and (generally) players are happy to play them every day of every week, and more often than not, supporters are happy to pay attention to them. It may not be the televisually stimulating spectacle to the casual fan, but the main appeal of test cricket is the gradual war of attrition between two teams over the course of five long days. Don't believe the scare-mongering or petitions, test cricket is in rude health. Twenty20 is everything that test cricket isn't, it's rude, loud, in your face, and goes at a million miles an hour. And this works too, because TV companies like to show it, people like to go and watch, and players like to play (and to pick up the vast wods of cash they get for the priviledge).

ODIs don't really have that. As fun, exciting and exhilerating as they were when they first burst onto the scene 40 years ago, the game of cricket has moved on, and they've stood painfully still. 50 over cricket, no matter how many powerplays or free hits are injected into it will almost always have that really dull middle period which isn't quite test and certainly isn't T20. Long, pointless series are shoehorned in to an already packed international calendar, and nobody seems that interested.

So it may not come as a huge surprise when the man who was until last month the best bowler in the format, Graeme Swann, comes out and says that he'd like to see an end to ODI cricket. "It's not enjoyable" says our Graeme, and points to the full calendar and lack of interest from almost all concerned.

But why should we scrap ODIs? I'll be the first to admit that there are too many One Day International matches played, but to completely remove the format from cricket seems a touch extreme. The issue of long, drawn out, one-sided series can be resolved by limiting all ODI series to best of threes - which would also help ease the issue of overcrowding. While money shouldn't really be a factor, it sadly is, and for smaller grounds, the prospect of hosting ODIs is all that can financially keep them going if holding test matches is unlikely. Don't forget, ODI cricket gives the minnows (who not that long ago Graeme was supporting) the chance to compete and grow, with test status also unlikely to be forthcoming. And lest we forget, while some ODIs can be dull, so can certain tests and T20 games. The last World Cup was filled with giant-killings, dramatic finales, chokes and epic wins, which was nigh on the perfect advert for the format.

Yes, ODIs are far from perfect, and the ICC will need to seriously consider changing the format from 50 over to a forty over affair, but to scrap the format completely smacks of a man who's just been part of a team who've been whitewashed by the world champions. But relax ODI fans, Graeme Swann's word isn't law (yet), which means that the chances of an RIP for ODIs is quite a way off yet.

Sachin Tendulkar and the persuit of perfection

Through the vast history of cricket, over the 2000+ test matches that have been played and the countless players to take part in them, there has been one man that has stood head and shoulders ahead of everyone else to have played the game. Sir Don Bradman, cricket's ultimate legend, had a career that nobody else has ever had, or will ever have. Part of the legendary tale of Bradman, however, is the story of his final innings. Needing just four runs to finish with a career average of 100, Don was dismissed for a second ball duck, and with it, an average of 99.94.

For all of the great performances, great victories and great feats that the game offers, at it's heart, cricket is a game of numbers. And it's those statistical quirks that see fifties, centuries and ten-wicket hauls celebrated so resolutely. While there never will be another Bradman, the game of cricket has been lucky enough to be touched by a successor to the throne, Sachin Tendulkar. Of course, Sachin doesn't average 100 either, but the sheer longevity of his high-class career, and the sheer amount of runs that he's scored in international cricket set him aside from his peers also. Sachin is on 99 international centuries, a mark that he's been on since the World Cup this spring. He's fallen twice in the nineties in his search for the elusive hundredth hundred. Today he fell for 94 in his home town of Mumbai, in what would have been the fairytale way to mark an ultimate achievement.

Just as nobody will average 100 in test cricket, nobody will come close to reaching Sachin's mark of 100 international hundreds. But just as Bradman failed to reach the ultimate, wouldn't it be apt if Sachin were to never make it to his goal either? In an odd way, failing to get there would add to Sachin's story, just as it added to Bradman's. If Sachin didn't make it to 100 hundreds, it would prove that the man they call God is actually human after all...

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The life and death of test cricket

This week, we've seen one of the classic test matches. Set 310 to win, Australia and South Africa battled it out, with each side looking well set, only to be clawed back by their opponents. It was left to 18 year old debutant Pat Cummins, to come in with his side 8 down, and smash the 13 runs needed to see Australia to victory. It was a game that had everything - some excellent batting, some awesome bowling, some jittery collapses and some stoic partnerships. It was test cricket at it's finest, with bat and ball always in keen competition, and neither side giving the other an inch.

Contrast that to events this week in Mumbai. West Indies, a team hardly known for their batting exploits (indeed, they only possessed 7 test centuries between them) have batted through the first two days, and are 575/9 at the close of play on the second. Already, some of the Indian bowlers have been complaining about the back-breaking serface that's been served up to them, and with justifiable cause. When the West Indies are dismissed, India will then have to come out and bat, and will no doubt rack up a similiar score with no time left to force any sort of result. Even when the game in Johannesburg was reaching it's climax, it was impossible to predict which way the game would go. Contrast that to Mumbai, where the captains may as well shake hands on the draw now and save everyone the bother of turning up for the next few days.

The game in South Africa proved just how good test cricket is - not that we had any doubts about it. But events in Mumbai, and specifically the groundsmen's decision (whoever told them to do so) to create a road just sees test cricket shooting itself in the foot. Yes, attendances for test cricket are low, and the money's in T20s and One Dayers. But every cricket administrator worth his salt knows that test cricket is the ultimate, and should be protected. For all of the talk of test championships and petitions over shortened test series, the real way to "save" test cricket is to stop the batsman dominated snooze-fests that are all too common in world cricket today.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Ponting Dilemma

Cricket is rarely a fairytale. Just ask Gavin Hamilton (one test cap, where he bagged a pair and went wicketless), a succession of South African captains in World Cups and Keegan Meth. But every now and again, a moment comes along where everything just falls into place, and someone has the chance to do something mythical.

Ricky Ponting is one of the greatest players of our generation; indeed of any generation. Even in fifty years his name will be spoken about reverentially by those lucky enough to have seen him. The three successive World Cups. Being captain of perhaps the greatest team to have ever played. Over 26,000 international runs. An international career thus far spanning 16 years, representing his country during their greatest era of success. There is no doubting Ricky Ponting's pedigree, yet coming into this innings, the 267th of his test career, the calls were growing for it to be his last.

Without a century in 23 months, and more incredibly, without a fifty in 11 - Ricky Ponting's form has gone to pieces. No longer the undroppable captain, and averaging well under 20 since the start of 2010, Ricky's presence in the team is becoming increasingly untenable and the idea of him being dropped ever more likely. With every loss and batting collapse come further calls for a change to be made to a brittle Australian batting line-up, and Ponting, for so long the backbone that held it together, could be the fall guy for yet another series defeat.

Ricky Ponting doesn't deserve for it to end that way. For everything he's given Australian cricket - world cricket - our last memory of Ricky shouldn't be of a dishevelled shell of himself unable to cope with the South African bowling, stripped of the captaincy and shunted down the order from his number three spot. For all of his flaws, Ponting deserves a far more dignified end. Tomorrow he'll return to the crease alongside his new captain with 54 runs to his name, and 168 more runs to win. The potential for a Ponting hundred to clinch the game and save the series is so perfectly set up that it's almost been scripted.

But Ponting getting there would create more problems than it solves. In the fairytale, Prince Ricky would hit the match-winning hundred before announcing his retirement and riding off into the sunset upon his noble steed. We've seen it before - what better way to sign off than right at the top after playing an immense innings? And Ponting might well do that. But the trouble is, Ricky Ponting loves playing cricket for Australia. Why else would he be out there? It would have been easy for him to have bowed out when he handed the captaincy over earlier in the year, but his passion for playing ensured he was determined to keep going. As long as he feels he's good enough, he will keep going. And if he is good enough, even at the grand old age of 36 years and 337 days, to score hundreds against the best bowlers in the world, why wouldn't he keep going?

So what if he doesn't get there? The new Australian selectors, headed by John Inverarity, are yet to select a squad of players, let alone a team. With recent Australian failures very much on their minds, the new selectors will certainly want to start afresh, and what better way to signal the start of a new era than to get rid of the man who epitomises the old one? While Ponting has batted very well to get to 54 overnight, even getting to a far more significant score may not be enough to save him.

Ponting deserves the dignity of a memorable test farewell, not being dropped in ignominious circumstances. While it may not be Warne and McGrath bowing out amidst the tickertape of a 5-0 Ashes whitewash, guiding his team home with a century wouldn't be far off. The fairytale ending is set up for Ricky, but even if he got it, would he take it as an ending? The hundred and the win would be the perfect close to a fantastic career, but would the lure of future glories and a Dravidian renaissance (Dravid has 10 test centuries since turning 36) keep him in the Baggy Green? Either way, some big decisions will have be made, either from the Australian selectors or Ricky Ponting himself. The next 46 runs could be the biggest 46 runs in Ponting's career - if he gets there he will prove that the light hasn't gone out, and he is still good enough to score test runs. If not, he might not get the chance to decide. For once, I'll be cheering on Ponting and hoping that he gets there, because after everything he's given to cricket, he deserves to be the one that decides.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Death of Test Cricket?

South Africa all out for 96. Australia all out for 47. 68 runs fell for 18 wickets. Is test cricket dead? Obviously not.

OK, maybe it isn't right to use the events of one manic afternoon in Cape Town to prove beyond doubt that a format has been saved. But this one weird couple of hours has given us some of the best test cricket that will be seen this year, let alone this decade.

For all of the talk of twenty20 killing test cricket, of players disinterested due to the lack of money, and of crowds staying away, the main threat to test cricket over the past few years has been completely stone dead pitches. We've seen games where 700 has played 600 after the first innings, and the captains could have shaken hands on the draw after the second day. Only a miracle performance with the ball can produce any inch of excitement or sporting competition on these sorts of pitches, leading to dull draws and talk of test cricket's demise.

So isn't it refreshing when a pitch offers a tiny bit to the bowler? While there has been talk about the standard of the pitch not being appropriate to test cricket, there has been a fair battle between bat and ball throughout. The Australian first innings was a case-in-point, a fired up South African bowling attack led by the world's best paceman Dale Steyn chipped away at Australia, but were held back by a world class performance from Michael Clarke. Bat and ball were in fierce competition, and given that these were the world's best in action, the spectacle was fascinating. Clarke eventually perished for 151, dragging his team to 248, and it was as enthralling an innings as I can remember for a long time.

What happened next was absolutely mental, with wickets falling all over the place, and there were plenty of rash shots from batsmen that were far from world class. While there may have been one too many gremlins in the pitch, surely it was more exciting and interesting than seeing bat dominate ball for session after interminable session? And the partnership at the end of Amla and Smith to get South Africa to stumps just one down shows that a lot of the wickets were down to a combination of good bowling, and awful batting.

I don't think any of us really thought test cricket was on it's death bed, and days like this proved just how alive the format is. This test, and the one last week, where the West Indies gave India an almighty shock, certainly show that test cricket isn't really in a terminal decline. Sure, games like this and stories like this don't really help, but ultimately, test cricket is in rude health. And any format that England are best in the world is surely fine in anyone's book...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

New Blog - The Boys From Fortress Lord's

This is just a quick post to point you in the direction of my new blog - The Boys From Fortress Lord's. It's my Middlesex themed blog where I will follow and debate all of the happenings from Lord's (and the various outgrounds), and offer my opinions about how it's all going. Obviously not much will really be happening until the season gets underway next April, but until then you can expect thoughts on team news, player performances and general Middlesex stuff.

A couple of clicks, an add to the blog roll or a retweet would be very much appreciated, so hopefully I'll see you over there!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Spot-Fixing: Not a lol matter

So says Tino Best on Twitter. And he's right. This is a long way from being a lol matter.

Corruption in cricket, be it spot-fixing, match-fixing, or simply telling bookies things like the pitch condition has been probably going on for decades. While the ICC and cricket in general has done it's best to stick it's collective head in the sand about the issue and pretend it doesn't happen, given the testimony of Mazhar Majeed's council, it's plainly obvious that this is a much wider-spread issue. As much as we can pretend it doesn't happen, corruption and cheating is rife within cricket, and it's now that we need to start dealing with it.

There has been some debate over the past couple of days about whether it's right for cricketers who've "only" bowled no-balls to go to jail for their actions. Jail is a place for murderers and rapists, not for bowlers who lose their stride, right? Well, while the Crown Prosecution Service has absolutely nothing to do with the governance of world cricket, it's just as well that Majeed, Butt, Asif and Amir have been sent behind bars, as the puny punishments of the ICC act as absolutely no deterrent whatsoever. All three were found guilty by the ICC, but only given bans of a couple of years. What sort of message does that send to a cricketer thinking about getting involved in all of this? Take the money for a few years, get banned, then return a few years later to carry on? And that's all assuming the ICC actually find, stop and catch them, as lest we forget, it was only through the actions of a now defunct tabloid that Amir, Asif and Butt were even caught.

Butt, Asif and Amir have indeed been caught, and brought to justice. They'll now serve 30 months, 1 year, and 6 months behind bars respectively, which will hopefully resonate around the cricketing world. Will it stop the corruption in cricket? In the UK, maybe, as a legal precedent (and the threat of another sting) has been set, which should ward off any untoward activity on these shores. But around the world? The ICC Anti-Corruption squad has proved itself time and again to be toothless, and their inability to find or stop corruption since their conception is incredibly worrying. Butt, Amir and Asif were just plain unlucky to have been caught out by the News of the World; but for the sting they'd likely be still going on now, and would be going on for a while. Just as the other cases of corruption is probably still going on, and will go on, for a while.

The ICC should be spearheading the push against corruption, and with a strong governing body who are naturally suspicious and able to police things effectively, the problem could be stamped out. So when head of the ICC anti-corruption and security unit Ronnie Flanagan says things like "corruption is certainly not rampant in the world of cricket", it hardly sends out a strong message to the corrupt that the ICC are on their case and they should stop.

Cricket is in a mess, and while we will of course enjoy the game we love when it's played, every time there is a fumbled catch, bungled run-out or overstepped no-ball, the doubts will creep in over whether we are seeing a genuine sporting contest between two top-level sides, or whether we're just watching the outcome of a heavily scripted money-making operation. While I'm sure the majority of teams and players aren't involved, there does appear to be a culture of corruption in cricket. Having one spot-fixer in world cricket is too many, and until each and every one is stamped out, there will always be that slight element of doubt hanging over each match we see.

It is a terribly sad day for cricket that an international captain and his opening bowlers have been sent to jail for perverting the sport, but hopefully we can look back on this day as a landmark in the history of the sport. A day that set us on the road to clearing out the corrupt and getting them out of cricket. The question is, can it be done?