Today saw the start of the Australian domestic limited-overs season. It was new it two ways. It has a new name, the Ryobi One-Day Cup, and a spiffing new set of rules.
The number of maximum overs allotted each team is now 45, not 50. And each innings will be split into two: a maximum of 20 overs in the first split, and (obviously) a maximum of 25 in the second and last split. A new ball will begin each split, but from the 'opposite' side, as it were. The number of wickets in hand is still 10, but the number of players available for the Captain is 12 (although only 11 are allowed on the field at the one and the same time). Each team can start batting from the top of the order at the start of the new split, however many wickets were lost in the first split, but lost wickets are still lost. In other words: a team that loses 4 wickets in the first split for 150 runs, starts the second split scoring on 4-150 and can only loose 6 more wickets; their batsmen can, however, bat again, even if they did get out in the first split. In the first 5 overs of each split, the fielding team is only allowed two fieldsmen outside the circle; in all the other overs, four. A bowler can bowl 12 overs and is allowed 2 bouncers per over. Further, umpires have been given more latitude to allow balls that might end up legside legal (i.e., not wide). The team scoring the highest number of runs of the first split earns a bonus point.
Supposedly, these changes will spruce up the format, even the conditions (e.g., light, dew) facing each team, and save one-day cricket from oblivion ... and certain death from lack of audience interest. Apparently, Sachin Tendulkar approves since he feels it lessens the effects of the coin toss and, if I remember correctly, Alan Border made some quite positive noises regarding the matter last season.
This woo remains unconvinced.
One reason for keeping the longer short format it is argued, is that it provides a good way for a young, inexperienced batsman to learn how to construct a Test innings. It appears to me, however, that a better way of learning how to construct a Test innings is to play first-class cricket. (In Australia, our first-class cricket, the Sheffield Shield, is played over four days.) Exhibit A: Andrew Symonds, who was a very fine ODI players for years before he managed to become a good Test one. And he became a good Test cricketer by playing in Tests, not in more ODIs. Exhibit B: Usman Khawaja, who already is a very fine first-class player, and who was only beginning to find his feet (and regular selection) in the domestic one-day version of the game relatively recently. It appears to me that he knew how to play the longer form before he knew the shorter. (For what it is worth, I have only seen him play one domestic Twenty20 match; he was selected due to injury and national service of other NSW players.) Further, splitting the innings into two will also rob this argument of some of its weight, irrespective of the number of wickets remaining the same. Also, since it appears that the international matches will not change, it is not quite clear to me that whatever the Australian players might win on the swings, they won't lose on the roundabouts: they will now not only have to eventually adapt to the longer, first-class or Test kind of cricket, but also to a different type of the day-long form, as well as to the very shortest form of the game which is different again. Finally, perhaps we should not entirely forget that before the 1970s, a lot of people appear to have been perfectly capable of learning how to play and pace a Test innings without ever having had the benefit of playing a single ODI. Just a thought.
An additional reason to introduce the split innings has been, if I understand things correctly, to rid one-day cricket of the longueurs of the mid-overs (say between overs 20-40) when the batting would at times be almost cautious in the extreme and the field setting and bowling as defensive as possible.
Will people who are not interested or able to watch a whole day of cricket find this new format more interesting?They may now be able to see each XI play one split of the innings if they, for instance, want to go after work. But they would still only see half of the match. (Although it might be more entertaining to watch each team bat and field in turns, rather than just the one or the other.)
So with all that said, how was the very first match of the Ryobi One-Day Cup, which, I suppose I should point out, was played between the Queensland Bulls (last year's number 3 in the 50 over format, then known as the Ford Ranger Cup) and the Tasmanian Tigers (last year's winners of the Ford Ranger Cup).
The Bulls won the toss and sent in the Tigers to bat. Unsurprisingly, I do not think that the players were entirely comfortable with the new rules and the new format (although, it is safe to say that the bowlers seemed to enjoy not having to worry overly much about bouncers — I cannot actually remember a single one of them using his allotment of two in one over). The batsmen in particular did at times look a little bit hesitating out there. On debut for Tasmania, Mark Cosgrove, as rotund as ever, as enticing and talented a batsman as ever, came out to open and ended the split on 59* with Tasmania on 3-105. One commentator claimed that '[Cosgrove's] runs make up for other deficiencies of his game.' Seeing that Cosgrove is quite nimble on his feet at the crease, a good run-scorer (I believe he was the leading run-scorer for SA Redbacks in last seasons KFC BigBash T20 competition and certainly instrumental in getting that particular team to the Champions League, whereupon they promptly dumped him), and is a very decent slip-fielder, one cannot help but wonder what those supposed 'deficiencies' might be exactly and whether that is not merely the acceptable way of implying that Cosgrove is fat. Well, yes, he is fat. But since he seems more than able to produce runs is this really a problem? Other than in SA Redbacks' selectors heads?!
Queensland answered with 3-91. Honours more or less even, but went to the bonus point to the Tassies.
The second split, played under lights, became quite a swinging affair: Cosgrove got out quickly and Tasmanian wickets continued to fall at regular intervals, as did the run rate until bowler Brett Geeves came in and blasted 22 runs at a SR of 275.00. Total Tasmanian score: 9-252 (45 overs).
Queensland answered by initially losing a couple of wickets, then not losing any for a while. The required RR blew out a little, but nothing unsurmountable these days. Then the Bull lost a whole batch of wickets and were in big trouble, both wicket- and run rate-wise. All looked lost when #11, Nathan Rimmington, sporting a very caveman look these days, strode out to take up position at the crease. Scoring 42 runs at a SR of 175.00 he almost — oh, how breathtakingly close he he came — saved the hide of the Bulls. But in the end, the very end, the very last ball, in fact, he was bowled by a very relieved Drew. And the Tasmanian Tigers had defeated the Queensland Bulls by 5 runs.
Yes, it was very exciting there at the end. Edge-of-the seat kind of stuff. But so is every match that goes down to the wire. And it is not like that never happened in the previous format of domestic one-day cricket. But whether these changes will suffice to ultimately save the format as such is, I believe, doubtful. Australian sport commentator, Jon Anderson, claimed that the feeling is that we will see one more 50-over World Cup but that after that, this particular format will peter out — at least internationally — in about two or three years time. I find it difficult to believe that domestic competition will survive if the international outlet for it has disappeared and I hope that Jon Anderson is right.
With the advent of Twenty20, one-day cricket has become an oddly 'twixt and between format, neither here (full five days) nor there (three hours). Removing it from at least the international schedule would free up considerable time which would provide the opportunity to create some sense and order in what is now an over-full, unholy mess. It could give us more time for well-planned, and therefore better executed and more exciting, Test series. It could give us more time to focus on the really interesting prospect of club cricket in an international setting, viz. the Champions League and the IPL. It could give us more rested, less injury-prone players. And it could relieve us of all those qualitatively questionable and hopelessly meaningless ODI series. And I, for one, would welcome that.