Rock ’n roll and 50-overs

2011-01-29 00:00

CONSIGNED to its deathbed in the last few years, the one-day game appears to be in surprisingly rude health. The recent series between South Africa and India and the old Ashes rivals have been played before packed and boisterous crowds. Admittedly these are four of the top five teams in the world and both visiting sides enjoy strong local support, but still it was encouraging.

Cricket ought not to be in a rush to discard this version of the game. Otherwise it will be left only with its longest and shortest formats, attractions as far apart as opera and hip-hop. Speaking as a great admirer of both Mozart and Puff Daddy, I can understand the appeal of both. Even so there is a lot of territory to be explored between them.

It’s the same in cricket, a game that lends itself to more lengths than a skirt. Test cricket lasts five days and demands close attention from devotees. It is the land of legends and great deeds. T20 provides an evening’s entertainment and promises non-stop action. No sport concerned about its position and prospects in its right mind scorns either purists or the punters. Popularity has its place. Just that it is not the measure of all things.

Notions that 50-over cricket was on its last legs were confounded more or less simultaneously on two continents. On Wednesday the Aussies and Poms met in Adelaide for the fourth game in an absurdly lengthy seven-match series. Long before the gates were to open at noon snaking queues wound their way along Memorial Drive. Veterans, families and youths alike sweated as they waited under a baking sun.

A packed house greeted the sides and everyone seemed engrossed in the contest. Admittedly it was a public holiday and balmy weather prevailed, but the previous matches have also been well attended. Television ratings have surpassed expectations. Bear in mind that the best tennis players on the planet have been strutting their stuff in Melbourne.

Previously the Proteas had played an even tighter and higher quality series against the Indians. Hashim Amla had constructed another influential innings to give the hosts the edge in the decider. Remember when he seemed out of his depth? It’s not so long ago. Even more recently he was regarded as too sluggish for this racetrack. England said the same about Jonathan Trott, or did till he held them together in the last few matches.

Both campaigns have given value for money and both have confirmed that 50-over contests are by no means all crash bang wallop. Batsmen and captains are forced to think. No such claims can be made on behalf of T20. No one in their right mind takes it seriously. The idea that it is cricket’s version of the English Premier League is fallacious. Soccer matches last 90 minutes. It has always been considered sufficient to allow players to give full vent to their talents.

Alas 50-over cricket has been its own worst enemy. World Cups have been botched. Lots of meaningless matches have been played, over rates have slowed down, pitches have been too flat and the exchanges have been unduly predictable. Sport is a journey into the unknown or it is nothing. Powerplays have helped, but all too often spectators are taken for granted.

One-day cricket needs to wake up. Women, children and families ought to be welcomed, and music and cheap food can be laid on. Executives ought to leave their air-conditioned rooms and join the paying public. If they can stop bickering, Mr Majola and Mr Nyoka could set the example. What is it about money? How many cars can a man drive, how many shoes can he wear? As the President of Liberia famously pointed out, “Africa is not poor, it’s poorly managed.”

Better to make one-day cricket work than to dump it. Certainly it has been on a downward spiral. Fearing for its future and aware that crowds for domestic matches have declined, Cricket Australia reduced provincial matches to 45 overs apiece and split the innings. Although the tactics have become more interesting, attendances have stayed thin. South Africa and England have also turned away from the 50-over format.

But those insisting that the 50-over game is old hat might be mistaken. Rock ’n roll and skateboarding have been on their last legs for decades, and newspapers and movies for longer than that. Lots of people can only afford to go to one match a season. Might as well offer a full day and give them efficient facilities and a proper match, not a parody. In a single day they could watch great players pushing themselves hard. And both sides and every bowler will be seen. If it is presented correctly, it is not that hard a sell.

• Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in Pietermaritzburg.

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