2009-11-28 00:00

A LOT of nonsense has been talked about the death of 50-over cricket. Nothing unusual about that. Newspapers, movies and rock’n roll have been dying for years owing to the appearance of some newfangled challenger supposed to fire the imagination. The Internet, videos and hip-hop have indeed prospered, but the old timer has survived and even gained strength.

After all, papers and films are not passing fancies but outstanding products that fulfil cravings for news and nights out. Likewise, the 50-over game meets a deep-rooted demand. Moreover, 50-over cricket has improved. The batting power play has provoked debate and sudden changes of fortune. Of course, the format needs to be constantly refreshed. All the evidence, though, indicates that it is in rude health. Meanwhile, 20-over cricket has been around for five minutes and it’d be silly to take its longevity for granted.

The idea that cricket’s three formats are rivals and that the town ain’t big enough for all of them is unduly pessimistic. Quite the opposite. Cricket is an extraordinarily flexible game. Music has its classical, jazz and rap and all have their followers, with youngsters mostly attracted by the latest fad and veterans following the songs of their youth and the greatness they have encountered along the way.

Cricket likewise can last 20 overs, or 50 or 100, an evening or well nigh a week. Each version has its attractions and supporters. Often there is an overlap. T20 might even uplift the 50-over game. Jazz was the devil’s music until Elvis Presley came along. Now it sounds fine and dandy.

Mostly, the notion that 50-over matches are dead in the water has been media-driven. Reporters turning up for their 15th game of the year are inclined to be a bit exasperated, especially when the contest seems to exist in a world of its own, untouched by relevance. As the match unfolds it looks familiar and they scratch their heads trying to find a new angle. Accordingly they tend to conclude that the genre has lost its spark and advocate change.

But another story can be detected in the stands. India’s recent home series against Australia drew seven full houses. Thousands were locked out. English grounds were jam-packed for their seven matches against the same opponents. Most of these spectators watch one match a year. To them it is a memorable occasion. Cynicism stays in the press box, and sometimes on the field.

How have the crowds been so far in this series? A rand to a dollar says the stadiums have been heaving. If this is death, then what is life? Even the Champions Trophy staged here­abouts in September was reasonably well attended and never mind that umpteen matches were played at the same venues. South Africa was wrong to scratch 50-over contests from its domestic game. By the look of things, it needs more exposure, not less. And it was a premature move. Anything less than 50 and standards begin to slip.

Fifty-over cricket ought not to undersell itself. It is the shortest length permitting great deeds with bat and ball. Sachin Tendulkar’s recent 175 against the Aussies counts among the finest exhibitions of batting as opposed to hitting seen in recent years. Here was a wonderful batsman in full flow, building, expanding, pacing, confronting speed and spin, and all the while watching the run rate. And he finished on the losing side! Unless resisted, prophecies can become self-fulfilling. Fifty-over matches have lasted because they provide good cricket, close contests and give punters a chance to see all 22 players in a single day. And the matches can start in the afternoon so workers and schoolchildren can attend. It is patronising to assume these folk are only interested in swiping.

Five-day cricket, though, is under pressure. As much can be told from the crowds and the surveys. Dreary pitches, stalemates, expensive tickets, and the timing of matches have eroded its attraction. Cricket’s true test will come soon as the five-day matches begin. At least it is a contest between equals. Part of the problem has been the inclusion at the same level of weak sides.

Hopefully the pitches will be livelier than those produced in India lately, as the dice were loaded and matches turned into batting exhibitions. Hopefully there will be plenty of atmosphere. Obviously quite a few England supporters will turn up. Not that England are actually playing — more like Durham and the Dominions.

In the longer term, Cricket South Africa ought to consider daynight Tests, cheaper food and free entry to the public sections. After all, the real money comes from television contracts and ground franchises.

Test cricket has a fight on its hands. The 50-over game is here to stay.

Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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