Limited overs, limited future?

The players do not like it but the money men do - and that is the conundrum of the one-day international

If the International Cricket Council is content with anything, it is being custodian of three forms of the game. Hardly a meeting passes without it extolling, like a proud parent talking up the gifts of their various children, the different merits of Tests, 50-over one-day internationals and Twenty20.

This caring attitude in which all three are apparently treated as equal cannot disguise the perception that some are treated more equally than others. One-day internationals have come to be perceived as the runt of the litter.

In a way this fall from grace has been inevitable. The ICC is forever articulating the vital importance of protecting Test cricket, while doing precious little about it, and the advent of T20 has simply changed the game forever. In addition the continual tinkering with the one-day regulations – powerplays, two new balls – does not bespeak a game in rude health.

The casually derisory view of 50-over cricket has been given further impetus by the retirement from it of Kevin Pietersen. If one of the best 50-over practitioners in the world cannot be bothered any longer why should anybody else? The slope has become steeper and slippier.

It seems plain that there is too much international cricket with teams on every tour usually fitting in a combination of all three. On England's tour of the UAE earlier this year, for instance, there were three Tests, four ODIs and three T20s against Pakistan. West Indies' current tour of England comprises three Tests, three ODIs and one T20. Later in the year, England and South Africa will contest three Tests, five ODIs and three T20s.

No other sport has the equivalent. True, rugby union has the traditional form and occasional sevens but whenever you hear administrators talking of the virtue of three formats it is hard not to think of, say, football trying to balance entirely separate forms consisting of normal 11-a-side, five-a-side and penalty shoot-outs.

The increase in the number of all matches in the 40 years since one-day international cricket began has been greater than a banker's bonus, multiplying more than tenfold. In 1971 there were 18 international cricket matches, 17 Tests and that maiden ODI, in 2011 there were 206, of which 39 were Tests, 146 ODIs and 21 T20s. England tend to play more Tests than other countries and many fewer ODIs. Although they played 30 ODIs last year, it was a more typical 17 the year before, fewer than seven other nations.

The general view is that something will have to give. Players (most of whom, like Pietersen, would prefer there to just be Tests and T20) consider that the one-day international is on borrowed time. In his persuasive and engaging way, Graeme Swann, one of the few England players now to appear in every format, rarely misses an opportunity to pronounce the need for a severe reduction in, if not the death penalty for, the 50-over game.

But all this is not necessarily buttressed by the figures, which is what it is all about of course. That and the sport for its own sake. The ICC will tell you that the most recent World Cup, won by India in India, saw the renaissance of the one-day international. Certainly, anybody on the streets of Mumbai on the night that India prevailed in the final against Sri Lanka would have said they were witnessing a game in its death throes.

Last year in England a record 850,000 people watched international cricket and the attendances at ODIs matched that increase. "We are supportive of all three forms of the international game and consider 50-over one-day internationals to be in extremely robust shape, which is supported by the number of people going through the turnstiles," said an England and Wales Cricket Board spokesman.

Nor is there any sign of television companies tiring of the format. Audiences have held up and in a way they still prefer it to T20 because there is more scope for advertising breaks.

The most berated of all ICC competitions is the Champions Trophy, the next version of which is to be played in England in 2013, yet over the years it has also been the biggest money earner. It is a shorter competition than the World Cup and tends to feature the top teams with correspondingly closer matches.

Next year's tournament is being played instead of the inaugural World Test Championship which was originally scheduled. The ICC's broadcast partners were unwilling to sacrifice either advertising revenue or audiences. Who can blame them? Certainly not the players who have become accustomed to big money, which will continue to be guaranteed only by broadcasting rights being sold for significant amounts.

The record number of one-day internationals in a single year was the 191 played in 2007, a figure distorted by there being a World Cup containing nearly 60 matches. Not surprisingly, that was also the year in which the most internationals of all hues, 227, was played.

Concerns expressed by players should not be lightly dismissed and no format can afford to have too many players of the calibre of Pietersen walking away from it.

It was the main reason the ECB refused to allow Pietersen to continue to play T20, his preferred (and less arduous) limited-overs option. Had he been allowed to call the shots the fear was, according to the coach Andy Flower, was that five or six or more might follow him down the road one day soon. There is a difficult balancing act to perform. Everybody agrees that players must be protected from the potential effects of burn-out but audiences understandably want to see the best players.

The idea of spectator burn-out is not (yet) supported by the crowds. The fact is that the ECB's policy of taking the international game out into the country has worked.

Part of the perception of one-day cricket's malaise has come not only from players but from those who follow the game around, not least reporters. To some it is no longer a special event because they have seen so many. This is an argument with some validity and the administrators had better watch it, but for now the good folk of Southampton, or Bristol, or Durham who for more than a century never had the chance of seeing international cricketers are lapping up the opportunity.

Then again, they might turn up in similar numbers for a couple of Twenty20s, a women's match followed by the men. The players could be right. One-day cricket may well die out especially if they withdraw their support and goodwill. On the other hand, world poverty might be eradicated first.

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