England begin a series of 50-over matches today. It will be among the last of its kind.Fifty-over cricket will soon become extinct; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sometime and soon.
The spectacular, uninhibited advance of Twenty20, together with the evidence that it contains perhaps greater skills and more thrills in less than half the time, points in only one direction. The players, if not yet the public, seem aware that they are taking part in the administrationof last rites.
Kevin Pietersen, England's best batsman and one who previously did not give a fig for Twenty20 cricket, was unequivocal yesterday. "It will be the new form of one-day cricket," he said. "I reckon that in the next couple of years 50 overs is probably going to be something of the past."
The shortest form of the game (until, it is to be supposed, they invent Five5 – which, come to think of it, they already have in the event of rain) has changed the mentality of players. As Pietersen observed, going into a four-day match after playing Twenty20, it seemed to the players as though they were playing for a year.
"Twenty20 has been captivating to such an extent that I believe it's the kind of game that could well filter into America. It's great for cricket. Cricket is getting back and front pages, and the last time we saw that was in that wonderful series against Australia. I'm not going to be drawn into negatives about Twenty20. I see this as a positive time to be playing cricket for England, a positive time to be playing cricket full stop. A great, great time."
Pietersen is a player with singular views, but there is no question that the rest of the England team have also been stunned by recent events. They can see that something has to give, and they suspect they know what it will have to be. Twenty-20 is hip, flip and where it's at, so to speak.
"It has developed into a game which is at the forefront of our thought patterns," said Pietersen. "The way we think about things now [compared] to the way we thought about it last year has changed completely. When it came in, everybody thought it was a slog – just go and have some fun and entertain. But the way that people play it, the way that people do slog, the way people have entertained have turned it into a huge, huge business now.
"As you have seen by the tournament [the IPL] they have just had in India, the success there, by what's happening in November [Stanford T20], by the World Cup in England next year, by what's happening in South Africa as well, it's a totally different kettle of fish now."
Which leaves the 50-over match against New Zealand today in Durham and the four that follow in something of a quandary. They are already sell-outs, and there is no reason to think that two evenly matched sides will not provide a watchable and entertaining series. Last summer, England and India served up some compelling stuff as England won 4-3.
But the game is up. Too much has happened too quickly, and while there is the tricky matter of an impending Champions Trophy, which is going to look particularly superfluous, in Pakistan this September, a couple of World Cups and the television rights packages, the game is still up.
The players' attention will wander, and shortly after that the spectators will cease to care. It is also probable that in the corridors of cricketing power they are coming round to the idea that if they can quietly expunge 50-over cricket from the schedules they might be able to make a case for saving Test cricket. They have to.
Bearing all that in mind (not to mention the $1 million-a-man T20 match in Antigua this November, from which there is simply no escape) Paul Collingwood has to prepare his charges for a tough series. They were well beaten by the same opposition away from home onlyfour months ago, but until then had begun to show discernible improvements.
England are still an inexperienced side but they should have enough to see off the Kiwis, who are without Jacob Oram for the next 10 days, which means at least three matches. Given that they are already patching up in places, they will desperately need the real Brendon McCullum to stand up.
There were gasps of incredulity on Friday when McCullum was still scoreless after six overs in the T20 match at Old Trafford. England cramped him for space and prevented him getting enough of the strike, but he should have tried to find a way around both constraints.
Pietersen will bat at No 3 in the order, in an effort to give more vim, or "a chivvy up" as he put it, to the top of England's innings. This will mean Ian Bell moving (again) to No 4, unless he opens if Alastair Cook is absent because of a sore shoulder. To cover for the likelihood of the latter, the selectors, lo and behold, brought back Andrew Strauss yesterday. It had seemed his one-day international career had been terminated, but now he may well be dreaming of Antigua in November.
Luke Wright will be the other opener. The early evidence hints that he might be a straighter, superior version of the unfortunate Philip Mustard, and whatever he does will be done rapidly and ferociously. England have to give him a proper run, probably at least until 50-over cricket is killed off.
In case anybody was wondering – and the new Twenty20 fans probably aren't – Pietersen is desperate still to play Test cricket. His attitude to T20 might have changed and he might be calling for more games soon, since he has only played 26 of them in total and as he said, experience cannot be bought anywhere. But Pietersen's heart still lies elsewhere.
"Test cricket is amazing, I love Test cricket because of the challenges over five days and the different situations you get yourself into," he said. "Just that thrill of scoring a Test match hundred. That feeling last week of getting a Test match hundred, there is nothing better than that."
If England manage to climb on the back of their impressive Twenty20 win in Manchester today at the Riverside, they should go on to clinch the one-day series comfortably.
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