Ballr Cup shows there’s still merit in the tri-series system

This week, delegates from more than 50 cricketing nations will gather at Edinburgh to discuss the game’s most pertinent issues.

The ICC is considering radical changes in order to, one can only assume, increase the money-making potential of cricket’s ‘outdated’ structures.

The agenda is a fascinating, yet somewhat predictable one. Along with the rule change clichés that rear their ugly head without fail at the ICC’s annual meetings, are further money-making schemes for an avaricious governing body overawed by plutomania.

The T20 World Cup is set to be played biennially, clogging up the cricketing calendar in what appears to be an attempt to phase out fixtures between nations with little commercial appeal. More importantly, it’s a proven money-spinner – a win-win situation for the ICC.

Meanwhile, Test cricket will be gifted context and expansion through a two-tier system, giving the likes of India, Australia and England greater power and exposure, in case they didn’t have enough already.

This elitist mindset will strangle the life out of cricket in the lesser nations, allowing domestic T20 leagues to grow and dominate the cricketing landscape. It will also broaden an already significant gap in standard between the first and the supposed ‘second tier’ sides (Sri Lanka, West Indies and Bangladesh to name a few).

Once a financially unstable team with limited resources finds their way down into the second tier, they’re destined to remain. After all, these countries will garner substantially less revenue than the top tier sides.

What a grand plan by a board whose mandate, if only by a matter of principle, is to grow the game, particularly in those nations where cricket is in a state of relative atrophy. Contradiction is yet another example of the self-serving, money-hungry mindset of the ICC that continues to be a blight on, and make a mockery of, cricket’s governance. But I digress.

The only promising topics are the potential changes to DRS and the revamping of one-day cricket.

As you’ve no doubt heard, the ICC have proposed a 13-team one-day competition played over a three-year period, where each nation plays a three-match series against every other country, culminating in a final between the top two sides.

An inherent issue of 50-over cricket is context and relevance, or lack thereof. Too often are bilateral one-day series tacked on at the back-end of a tour after the Test series and T20s – both domestic and international – have reached a climax and endowed the summer of cricket with a sense of significance and excitement.

Consequently, the one-day series is overshadowed, met with waning interest and suffers from a muted significance.

Take last summer for example. India toured Australia for the second time in as many years for a five-match one-day series following Test matches against New Zealand and the West Indies, as well as the fifth edition of the Big Bash League.

There were no viable grounds for India’s tour other than revenue garnered from a large television rights deal that follows India around regardless of their destination.

T20 is the zeitgeist that dominates the cricketing landscape and sustains relevance for the next generation; Test cricket is the stalwart whose nostalgic qualities will forever hold a place in our hearts. For the moment though, one-day cricket is an afterthought, struggling for a consistent narrative outside of the years of the World Cup, and to a lesser extent, the Champions Trophy.

The ICC’s new proposal may remedy this, and any other redundancies that are omnipresent in one-day cricket currently. They have mooted some promising amendments to the current one-day blue print that will go a long way towards sustaining or improving its profile.

Its structure will transcend the full-member boundaries by incorporating three associate nations – Ireland, Afghanistan and one other decided by the ICC World Cricket League.

It will also give rise to a points table, with the win-loss record of a side contributing towards seeding for the World Cup.

England are currently doing their part to spruce up the summer of cricket and inspire excitement and anticipation of one-day cricket. They are midway through a super-series with Sri Lanka, where points are accrued across all three formats. The same system will be followed when they meet Pakistan later this year.

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, or have indeed been following routine sleeping patterns, you would have heard the Ballr Cup, brought to you by Cycle Pure Agarbathies, has been played and won by Australia.

Sure, the dual sponsorship reeks of vested interests and over-commercialisation, but the quality of cricket played over the past month exhibited why tri-series are far less monotonous than a bilateral series, especially one played out in the dying stages of a cricketing summer.

The tour to the West Indies showed us there is still life in the grand old scheme brought to fruition during the World Series Cricket years of 1979-80. Kerry Packer championed the idea in order to exploit what he saw as greater interest in a series whose denouement is a final. Sound logic.

Bilateral one–day series are at times repetitive, and are quickly fraught with disinterest as the same opposition turns out on five or more occasions across different venues. There is no climax, no zenith by which to be reached.

If exclusivity is to be created, the number of fixtures in a bilateral series must be reduced. Sides must not play each other in one-day series every year like we have seen over the past couple of summers with India and Australia. That way there is a sense of anticipation and excitement when a team tours for a one-day series.

Tri-series, on the other hand, contain a persistent narrative, much like the World Cup, Champions Trophy and the BBL. Batsmen are tested against two different bowling line-ups, vice versa for bowlers, there’s a points table to gauge success and failure, and bonus points to reward an appreciable victory.

Success requires adaption in a tri-series, to both conditions and the opposition. Enterprise is scarcely lacking in bilateral tournaments. We saw Australia chop and change between the spin of Nathan Lyon and Adam Zampa and the pace of Nathan Coulter-Nile and Mitchell Starc depending on the opposition and the venue to good effect in the Caribbean.

In fact, one could go as far as saying that the Ballr Cup was more intriguing than a Shane Warne love triangle, which, actually, isn’t really saying much at all.

In a month where the federal election, Wallabies-England and the major football codes took the headlines and centre stage, the West Indies tri-series held its own. One-day cricket still has a pulse; its future well and truly depends on its treatment.

Stand-alone tri-series have become as frequent as an estranged cousin you see every five years over Christmas dinner. They’re sporadic, appearing only to fill a void in the cricketing calendar. But they need to become more frequent if one-day cricket is to escape the cycle of condemnation and be given time in the sun for fans to sing its praises.

The only cynical connotation attached to the recently concluded tri-series pertains to its timing. At certain stages, it felt like an entrée to a three-course meal consisting of looming attractions such as the CPL and a Test series against India (their first visit to the Caribbean since the West Indies infamously pulled out of a tour in 2014).

One-day cricket mustn’t be pigeonholed, or it will begin to stagnate. Instead, it should act as the intermediary between Test match and T20 cricket, and be marketed accordingly to guarantee its longevity.

Presentation is everything when it comes to the success of one-day cricket, the tri-series has proven to be an effective tool for maintaining a congruence with the shortest and longest forms of the game. If there are no better alternatives, long may it continue.

Originally published at http://www.theroar.com.au/2016/06/29/ballr-cup-shows-theres-still-merit-in-the-tri-series-system/

 

The Royal London One-Day Cup – a step in the right direction for English ODI cricket

When England crashed out of the 2015 World Cup on a loathsome autumn’s evening in Adelaide, they were the architects of their own failures, the victims of their own inadequacies. The ECB’s penchant for nonsensical One-Day Domestic paradigms left England’s squad exposed, underprepared even, on an unforgiving world stage. While Eoin Morgan scratched his head in tandem with all and sundry – bemused by yet another middling English batting performance – the dearth of quality on the domestic circuit seemingly spelt trouble for England as a One-Day powerhouse going forward.

Their batsman looked frail, disconcerted by the tempo at which to bat in a one-day game. Old pros were made to look amateurish in a tournament where run scoring seemed overtly facile. England’s bowling cartel lacked creativity on flat wickets that demanded cricket entrepreneurism, bravado and a hint of intuition. Prognosis: England went to Australia ill-equipped through the systematic failings of its own board.

The calamitous 2015 CWC campaign was met with perpetual acrimony for some months following – and understandably so. Former England captain Sir Ian Botham labelled England’s performance ‘embarrassing’. The game against New Zealand at the cake tin – where England mustered just 123 with the bat before having it tracked down inside thirteen overs – was seen by Botham as the worst performance in his forty-years of watching England in one-day cricket. Perhaps the most pertinent and cogent of his statements, though, was that England were failing to play the game ‘the modern way’.

The ECB went hurriedly in search of a fix to remedy England’s woes in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, sacking Peter Mores and anointing favourite son Andrew Strauss as head of cricket in May of 2015. England’s one-day side was subsequently remodelled and pimped-out to ensure its first home series post-World Cup against New Zealand would not end in similar fashion to their infamous ‘windy-city’ pool A encounter.

The ECB’s changes were preemptive and told of a ‘buck stops with us’ approach to One-Day cricket going forward. Ultimately, they prevented a preened, unsullied board from incurring any collateral damage that would have left them red-faced going into a home Ashes summer, which was a more pertinent agenda at the time. At this stage, they were yet to get to the crux of why England’s fifty-over form was teetering on the edge of mediocrity.

In a beautiful irony, the World Cup provided English cricket with a crossroads that triggered a mutual awakening of the ECB and its players from a three-year hangover known as the Yorkshire Bank 40, or indeed any other forty-over incarnation of England’s domestic game.

English cricket was systematically failing to exercise the underpinnings of one-day international cricket in its domestic competition on multiple fronts in the lead-up to the World Cup. Its players were unconscious to the requisites and intricacies across all disciplines of the fifty-over format for a multitude of reasons, which have been duly answered by the ECB over the past year in the Royal London One-Day Cup.

Batsmen have learnt to negotiate the three power plays of a fifty-over game with greater efficiency, maximising run-scoring through the middle-overs to engineer a total. Pacing an innings is key in the one-day game. If we look at one of the inherent downfalls of England’s batsmen in the 2015 World Cup, it was the loss of wickets inside the first twenty to thirty overs of the game. In fact, twenty-four wickets, or 54% of all wickets lost, fell inside the first thirty overs of England’s six innings. Against the full member sides, the statistics are more harrowing; two-thirds of England’s wickets were lost inside the first thirty overs.

This is because a forty-over game has no period of slow-down or consolidation for batsmen. It’s the intermediary between a twenty-twenty game and a fifty-over game whereby batsmen feel compelled to continue scoring freely without the fear of losing their wicket. The last ten overs of a fifty-over game are crucial in mounting a total in excess of three hundred – which is mandatory in an age of big bats and twenty-twenty innovation. It’s necessary then that there are wickets in hand during the last ten overs of the innings. Ideally, of these wickets, one should be a set batsman. Before 2014, the death overs of a one-day game ceased to exist. Just one fifty-over tournament was played in 2014 in the lead-up to the World Cup, on forty occasions was a batting side bowled out before their allotment of fifty-overs.

Bowlers have found solace through instituting slower balls and yorkers in the death overs of a fifty-over game, while swing bowlers have come into their own during the first power play of the innings. I look at Essex opening pair David Masters and Matt Quinn as the new age archetype of a fifty-over bowler despite their age. Consistent and economical while possessing the ability to swing the ball both ways. Their deliveries seldom err from a full/ good length, giving the ball every opportunity to swing.

Masters has the best economy of the RLODC thus far (3.47) in 2016 (for bowlers who have bowled more than thirty overs), while Quinn is third in the wicket taking ranks with nine wickets in four games.

The first ten overs of a fifty-over innings have become as economically orientated as they are dependent on wicket taking. That’s why Quinn and Masters’ combined twenty-overs play such a pivotal role in the outcome of an opposition total.

Admittedly, many of England’s players can hardly use the domestic competition as an excuse for their World Cup failings given their limited opportunities while performing their England duties, but perhaps scheduling compounds the issue. England played a total of twelve ODI games in the four months prior to the World Cup of 2015. If they are to challenge in the 2019 edition, the focus must be on preparedness, giving players as much exposure to fifty-over, white ball cricket as possible.

The Best Transfers of Season 2016

The first thirteen rounds of the 2016 NRL Telstra Premiership have been perhaps the most unequivocally clichéd of the competitions recent past. No less though have the contests been beguiling, results perplexing and viewing exhilarating. The statutory calibre of Rugby League in this country in recent times is utterly intoxicating for the staunchest adherents of ‘the greatest game of all’. The storylines interwoven throughout each and every game have led to a showcase to be etched in footballing folklore.

The men from the shire have returned to the fore, leading the pack in a season destitute of such unprecedented fairytales. Meanwhile, the magic of the Cowboys’ 2015 campaign continues to set a benchmark for the competition heavyweights in 2016.

We don’t have a product though without the indisputable talents of the games greatest players. This column takes a look at the best transfers of the 2016 season.

Matt Parcell

The acquisition of Matt Parcell by the Manly Sea Eagles as a replacement for the 217 game veteran Matt Ballin – whose ACL injury has all but ended his 2016 campaign with the Tigers – has proven fruitful for a club experiencing a turbulent period both on and off the field. Parcell possesses speed in spades, a quality that has seen him exploit tired marker defence to cross the stripe on two occasions this season. Just last Friday, amid the swirling arctic winds of GIO Stadium, Parcell scooted out of dummy half past the meager, although visibly fatigued, defences of Paulo, Wighton and Whitehead to score, and inspire a Manly resurgence. His game was earmarked for first grade following a prolific 2015 with the Ipswich Jets, where coach Shane Walker labeled him a ‘new breed of hooker’. Brisbane’s rake incumbent Andrew McCullough hampered Parcell’s game time in first grade last year and was a major contributor in his move to Manly.

Parcell’s passing accuracy, speed and dexterousness is paramount when linking up with Daly Cherry-Evans out of dummy half, allowing space for him to take the line on and time to produce attacking kicks at the back end of a set. It’s disappointing that this combination will experience a mid-season hiatus as Cherry-Evans waits cantankerously on the sidelines for his injured ankle to recover.

Parcell’s career is still very much in the embryonic stage. However, his fitness, passing adroitness and defensive know how will see him prosper on the northern beaches for some time, and could see him earn a maroons jumper in years to come.

Ashley Taylor

If you’re a Gold Coast supporter you’re rejoicing. If you’re a part of the Brisbane faithful, you’re questioning what could have been and bickering over the comparative qualifications of current halves pairing, Milford and Hunt. Taylor is arguably the most laudable transfer of the 2016 season. It’s hard to believe that just two years ago he was plying his trade in the u20’s. His running game, willingness to take the line on and refined kicking game are the archetypes of a modern generation halfback.

Taylor, alongside fellow new recruit Tyrone Roberts, has shown wisdom beyond his years and has already produced match-winning performances for the Gold Coast. Starting a career at playmaker can often be a daunting and unforgiving experience for young players, where ephemeral stints in first grade are symptomatic of poor performance. No such drama for Ashley Taylor however. In twelve games he has managed six try-assists while scoring four of his own with his crowning achievement, a clutch field-goal in the dying stages of lasts weeks clash with the Rabbitohs.

Sam Burgess

A year in the Northern-Hemisphere playing Rugby Union looks as though it has strengthened the mental and physical resolve of the big back-rower. His 2014 Clive Churchill Medal winning form has been ameliorated further in 2016. The only blight on his game this year is a proneness to drop the football at inappropriate periods of the game. In fact, he’s made the most handling errors of any forward in the competition this season. Despite this, Burgess’ damaging runs and copybook defence makes him one of the most balanced, consistent forwards in the NRL. Over the last month he’s averaged 185 running meters, and 32 tackles per game.

James Maloney

He’s the most improved five-eighth of 2016 and has been duly rewarded with a second chance in a blues jumper. The successes of the Sharks this season can be partly attributed to the Maloney-Townsend halves pairing, who have led the go forward from game one in 2016 and set up a number of tries. Maloney’s short kicking game has produced a plethora of attacking opportunities for the Sharks, while his willingness to take the line on has put the big men into holes in the opposition defence.

Though, as ardent followers will note, there are still qualms over the effectiveness of his defence. Across twelve rounds of the competition in 2016 Maloney has missed 53 tackles, second only to Ben Hunt (56) in the halves.

Notable Mentions: Aiden Sezer (Canberra Raiders, HLB), Chad Townsend (Cronulla Sharks, HLB), Michael Gordon (Parramatta Eels, CTW/FLB), Trent Merrin (Penrith Panthers, FR), Te Maire Martin (Penrith Panthers, HLB), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (New Zealand Warriors, FLB), Jordan Rankin (Wests Tigers, CTW/FB), Joseph Tapine (Canberra Raiders, 2RF), Nathan Peats (Gold Coast Titans, HOK) and Tim Lafai (St. George Illawarra Dragons, CTW).

Natwest Blast needs to improve but not at the expense of it’s proud heritage

The red and gold pastels of an unprepossessing RCB away strip are seen wandering the verdant alleyways of Bangalore as the sun descends on yet another scorching summers evening. The orangey-pink hues of a dirt stain sustained in a last gasp dive for the crease on ninety-nine contrasts the golden lion of the RCB crest. All the while, Kohli raises his bat for the third time in as many games. The BCCI basks in all its glory, roping in excess of 1,194 crores from the IPL cash cow that has transfixed a nation.

KP, mic’d up, fresh from a stint in the Caribbean Premier League, becomes a clairvoyant to an enraptured national audience of 1.3 million by predicting the line and length of a Gurinder Sandhu delivery, before promptly depositing it into the densely populated mid-wicket stands of Australia’s coliseum, the MCG.

The naysayers of the T20 format have long scoffed at its ability to flaunt itself around the international market with unwavering success. The palpable atmosphere emanating from the hoarse diaphragms of forty-thousand frenzied Indian cricket diehards inside the M.Chinnaswamy Stadium on IPL finals day is exclusive of franchise fandom, and representative of t20’s success. A county side is seldom exposed to such ebullient support that its excellent standard deserves.

While the twenty-twenty cricket product appears to have reached the summit, capturing the hearts and minds of those most malleable – chiefly children and adolescents – England’s premier T20 competition continues to meander along with subdued significance, yet to tap into the successes of franchise cricket. But is this the route the T20 ‘blast’ should follow?

Does the current format require a total revamp? Does the rich history of English cricket embed fans with a refined palate that rejects T20 cricket? How can viewer apathy be improved?

These are the questions that must be asked by the powers that be on the English Cricket Board. The ‘blast’ must cease resting on its laurels if it is to awaken from a slumber that has seen it slip five-years behind a thriving pack. T20 is the profit centre for cricketing boards worldwide, yet the current tournament has well and truly missed the boat of financial nirvana. As it stands, the ‘blast’ lies on shaky foundations, whose rotting is the result of something far from the perceived fan reproof.

Perhaps the ECB are not buoyed by the same imperatives as the BCCI, namely revenue. For this, it should be admired. Money hungry boards are the foibles of cricket’s enduring character. Though, a competition based on privatised franchises – serving the county game its own commercial value – is like dangling a carrot in front of a board who is owed a combined £7.8 million from the counties, which is exactly the case.

Therein lies the confliction; county prestige and the greater good of the game vs. commercial appeal, garnered from a city-centric based competition.

For all intensive purposes, the pros of a franchise-based competition offers a cornucopia of benefits for the county game. But English cricket is a special case. It places more value, more merit in domestic cricket than any of its cross-country colleagues. Straying from its roots – which predate the 18th century – would prompt a crisis of significance for the domestic competition as the counties stare down the malignant glare of the new kids on the block. A misalignment of expectations between the three formats will leave the summer of cricket with emphasis on its shortest form. An oversight of such proportions would see one-day and championship cricket gasping for air in an environment bereft of oxygen. Australia’s witnessed it, so has India and New Zealand. The last recorded attendance of the Sheffield Shield in the 2011/12 summer saw a total of 4,809 people through the gates. More concerning was the One Day Domestic competition’s figure of 4,033 (total) in 2015/16. Dwindling attendance happens to align itself with the beginning of the Big Bash. Coincidence? Perhaps. It’s an issue that continues to confound the most ignorant eye.

Yet maybe this trend is indicative of cricket’s 21st-century forecast – a world dominated by the shortest form – and hence, should be unduly embraced.

The championship’s viewership figure in the summer of 2015, 513,000, attests the need for the ECB to conform to its current T20 format – with the implication of vast remodelling to raise attendance – so not to distract heavily from the championship. A city-based competition would momentarily amuse, before shuddering down to earth with a resounding clatter.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it must avoid the well-trodden path that has seen Australia’s Shield competition wistfully slip down the drain of inferiority through taking a reluctant backseat to the Big Bash. It’s not out of line to state that England’s domestic competition can achieve a kind of attendance parity across all formats if it resists its city-based entity.

So where does that leave us? Last year’s T20 Blast finals day produced the worst viewing audience since the competitions inception in 2003. Just 388,000 people parked themselves in front of the TV to watch the tournaments flagship event. Clearly that’s a message that the ethos of the blast is failing to sink in. So how does a jetlagged competition improve without stepping into the T20 twilight zone that is franchise cricket?

The short answer – high profile international players. Fans crave the battles of T20 that have them leaving the stadium with bated breath. Their appetite should be fed with an influx of international talent, serving two obligatory purposes: A.) Enhancing the blasts international and local appeal and B.) exposing England’s future stars to superlative cricketing craftsmen, thus enhancing their skills.

Take the game between Sussex and Somerset last week for example. On a ground that embodies the culture of county cricket, Hove, the indisputable hitting talents of Chris Gayle were tasked with taking down the searing pace of the now T20 specialist, and England hopeful, Tymal Mills. 90mph against a man, proclaimed ‘world boss’, whose sole purpose it seems is to send bowlers back to the team hotel with nightmares. An X-Factor that’s seen him amass some 2335 runs as a freelance T20 cricketer.

These battles rouse the fan base. Though, eighteen counties playing in one competition spreads the spattering of international cricketers particularly thin, meaning some counties are bereft of an import causing a gap between the standards of the sides.

Though it’s far from the only global T20 competition guilty of this, length is an inherent downfall of the ‘blast’. A tournament played over three months quickly becomes fatigued, failing to peak the zeal of the fan throughout the competitions entirety, consequently depriving the points table of meaning and significance until the finals roll around. The Blast morphs into the first day of a championship match than into the one-day cup before a rampant, English Test side subsequently diverts the interests of the cricketing fraternity. This issue has been duly addressed by the ECB, with the 2017 edition of the Blast played over two months during the school holidays. Even then, the typically hyped clashes must take precedence to clone overseas franchise success without losing sight of their heritage; the battle of the roses at an overpopulated, rambunctious Old Trafford or Middlesex-Surrey at Lord’s. The Big Bash has recently found success from its contrived intra-city franchise rivalry, aptly named the ‘Melbourne derby’. 80,000 fans saw an encounter between the two sides at the MCG just last year.

Franchise cricket doesn’t fit the bill as far as county cricket is concerned. The blast will develop through improved scheduling, exposure and international player endorsement.