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To ODIs, with Love

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Is the sun setting for the 50-over game? © AFP

If cricket were a song, and it has for so long been the song of my heart, then ODIs would most definitely have been the music, what first drew me to the game, what opened my eyes to the intricacies of it, its players and everything I later fell in love with, the melody that got stuck in my head that I couldn’t get rid of; and so it has saddened me to hear it described as the ‘dying format’ of the game so often in the recent past.

With the advent and rising popularity of T20 cricket, the IPL and its spawns, the One Day International has taken a fall from the heights it once stood at, with more and more fans giving in to the allure of T20 cricket every day.

While fans have found the less time-consuming, fast-paced excitement of the shorter format more appealing, the players and administrators have been lured in by the commercial appeal of it, and as such ODIs have begun to receive step-motherly treatment of late.

As popular vernacular would have it, ODIs may very well be the ‘useless child’ of the cricket family. Thrust into the limelight, and everybody’s darling, during the World Cup, but relegated back to the bottom tier in the interest stakes and forgotten, or thought of only in passing, once it is over, unless India are playing Pakistan of course.

While it is heartening to see that five-match ODI series are still the norm, for the most part, in bilateral series, the flagging crowds and waning interest, I fear may chime their death knell soon.

July brought with it a host of one-day matches for us Sri Lankan ODI fanatics, with the Champions Trophy and the South African tour, and a couple of scintillating innings that epitomised just what sets ODIs apart from the rest of the formats.

One-day cricket is not as slam-bang and action-packed in nature as T20s, nor is it as much of a snooze-fest (as some so often call it) as Test matches. A few bad overs at the start do not seal your fate in the game, the match is not as often decided in a matter of moments as in T20s, and it allows you the time to settle in, steadily work yourself out of a bad situation, perhaps score a century without having to hit every ball out of the park; and all this without having to wait overs on end to see a Dravid or Sanga unfurl one of their languid cover drives.

So often, to score a 150 runs or so at a strike-rate of over 100 in a limited-overs game, means to have to have played a Gayle-esque (or Finch-esque now I guess) innings, with the aggression of a Dilshan or the sheer hitting power of a Jayasuriya. Yet, ODIs do not require such out-of-the-park power-hitting from the get-go, affording players the luxury of time, and allowing for the finesse of an innings like Sanga’s on the 20th against South Africa. While he started slowly, playing the anchorman’s role, scoring just 66 runs off his first 91 balls, he later opened up with calculated aggression, and piled on another 103 runs to end on 169 off just 137 balls.

Mere weeks earlier, Upul Tharanga too had batted through the innings against India to make his way to 174 off just 159 balls. Like a fisherman sailing rocky waters he struggled at first, looking his stodgy, unsure self at the start, only to flourish later on, once he had played himself in, stroking the ball in a manner reminiscent of the Tharanga of the English summer of ’06. Herein lies the charm of the ODI.

Neither of these two innings would have found a place in the other two formats of the game. While the constant need for quick runs in T20 cricket would not have allowed for the time these players took to settle in, it would have also taken a couple of days to get to these runs in a Test match at a far slower pace.

T20s still seem to be child’s play, to me, for some reason. This is not to say that it requires any less skill than the other two formats, in fact, it in all probability demands more, but it’s just that the hyped-up ‘join-the-party’ cavalier attitude it has about it has found me (as much as I like it) a less fervent fan of it, as I am of the other two.

Test cricket, of course, always has been, and will always be the pinnacle, the highest form of the game, where absorbing battles of will are played out, the ultimate test of character, where the gentlemen are separated from the boys. And yet, ODIs still remain my favourite. Bridging the gap between Tests and T20s, it creates a platform on which the boys and gentlemen can come together, a field where even the Thilan Samaraweeras of the world can co-exist with the more flamboyant T20 specialists. A place, that to me, brings together the best that Test matches and T20s have to offer, the perfect compromise between the two worlds.

Yet the increasing push towards the commercialisation of the game, the cash extravaganza that is the IPL, lagging ticket sales and the dwindling crowds, mean that one-day cricket now faces a slow death. This realisation not only saddens me, but also leaves me playing ‘what if’.

What if ODIs had come after T20s? Would things have been different? And this, I fear, maybe one-day cricket’s greatest weakness. That it was born before its time. Had it come after T20s, it would have, in all probability, been hailed as bringing together the best of both worlds — T20s and Tests.

What haunts me is that the purists and traditionalists will stand up for Test cricket, and commercialism and the desire to spread the game across the world will make the case for T20s, but who will speak up for ODIs? Is there anyone? And what does this mean for its future?

To say all this, is not to say I like or regard the other formats any less, I love Test cricket, and like T20s, in fact, my greatest grievance of late has been our lack of Test matches this year, just that given the choice I’d take an ODI over a T20 any day, and over a Test match on most days — just maybe not these days!

And so here’s to ODIs, with Love…

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