A funny thing happened on the way to cricket's future. As England's recent improbable win over South Africa in Johannesburg affirmed, the five-day Test match, the game's traditional international form that owes its survival to the golden goose of the one-day contest, is now the likelier stage for gripping theatre.
As the balance of power swings back and forth, and individuals have more chances to dazzle, a five-day, two-innings Test can yield all manner of joys - even if the result is a draw - mostly because batsmen and bowlers have equal rights. A limited-overs international, in which virtually every rule is moulded to please the batsman, and the result is all, almost invariably requires a close finish for lasting impact or even instant gratification.
Lately, however, suspense has been an occasional surprise guest. Of the last 100 completed one-day internationals (ODIs), 73 have been decided by no less than four wickets or 35 runs: barely a quarter, in other words, have generated much drama.
By way of aggravating matters, Australia, who play Pakistan in the 50-over VB Series in Sydney tomorrow, preside even more tyrannically over the abridged game than they do the Test version. Winners of the past two World Cups, their last 150 ODIs have produced consecutive defeats on just six occasions; three successive reversals (twice) is as close as they have come to crisis.
Bored by such predictable fare, Australians have taken to cricket's latest reinvention with gusto. Two summers ago in England, a high-spirited 20 overs per side variant, Twenty20, was introduced. The response - big crowds, boasting unusually large numbers of children, that boosted county cricket's meagre finances - stunned all. Now it is crossing oceans.
When Victoria met Western Australia in Perth for the country's inaugural Twenty20 fixture last week, all 20,000 tickets were sold. The last full house on the west coast was nearly 25 years ago. Not only did the next day's "experimental" Australia A v Pakistan match fill the Adelaide Oval: its television ratings bettered those for the opening two VB Series games, official internationals starring Brian Lara, Shoaib Akhtar and a dozen more of the planet's best cricketers.
The need to overhaul the 50-over game was plain long before the birth of its shrunken offspring. Not since the 1992 World Cup in Australasia - with its single, all-play-all league - has the sport's showpiece been licensed to thrill. Even when the format is right, boredom, the poison for which one-dayers were supposed to be the antidote, is lurking.
"The ODI game does need the ICC [International Cricket Council] to rethink its format," John Buchanan, Australia's national coach, said this week, and his Pakistan counterpart, Bob Woolmer, concurs. For all the fun of those first 15 overs, during which captains cannot deploy more than two outfielders, the problem is overs 16 to 40. Fielders spread out; fast bowlers relax on the boundary; batsmen and spinners play cat-and-mouse; spectators grab 40 winks - or drink harder.
Buchanan proposes alleviating these longeurs by having 50-over innings split into halves, with one team batting for 25 overs, then fielding for 25, before returning to complete its 50 of batting. Furthermore, bonus points would be awarded for being ahead after each side has batted for 25 overs. The point, he told the Sydney Morning Herald, is that Twenty20 can be an agent for change: "What [it] will do is question why the 50-over format continues to be the way it is."
The bigger question is whether the one-day game needs two brands that, while not replicating each other, differ in size rather than content.
Twenty20 is a product of a time in which leisure choices have multiplied and attention spans have diminished, but those who favour it over the 50-over version have also done the maths. The shorter the match, the smaller the prospect of a one-sided encounter: of the 48 conclusive games in England last summer, 19, almost 40 per cent, were decided by no more than 30 runs or three wickets. These people also welcome a modification that holds greater allure for women, children and possibly even Americans.
If these brands are to co-exist, the 50-overs game needs more than the facelift Buchanan advocates. Laws and regulations have always favoured batsmen; so long as cricket continues to be run by former batsmen they always will. Lifting the restriction on how many balls a bowler can deliver per innings would be a step along the road to equality and prolonged dramatics.
Yet the benefits of anointing Twenty20 as the only one-day game could be vast. Doubleheaders - two matches in one day - would no longer be peculiar to baseball. World Cups and international tours could be briefer. As a result, fast bowlers in particular might be less prone to injury.
There would also be scope for the revival of the five-Test series, the fading cause for which England and South Africa are fighting in Pretoria. Since it was the growing hegemony of one-day cricket that inspired the unsatisfying, ludicrous and increasingly prevalent two-Test series, a terrible wrong could thus be righted.
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