The question occupying the minds of county followers, as we travel into a new season of the Royal London One-Day cup, is whether or not the dumbing down of 50-over domestic cricket, and its confinement to the margins of the summer, will foster an environment where the format is allowed to reach fever pitch. More and more these days, in an age where the mindset of fans has quite evidently shifted in favour of high octane run chases and off-field theatrics, 50-over cricket is being led off the edge of a cliff by those who wish it no longer existed. Each summer, now spring it appears, domestic one-day cricket makes administrators sweat and keeps them awake long into the night. They are aware that it is no longer the zeitgeist, nor is it the style of cricket that will have the fan, overfed by the intoxicating taste of t20 cricket, on their knees begging for more. And so, profit margins take a hit. The ECB, money orientated as they are, cross their fingers, say a prayer, and hope that the losses incurred by the friendless 50-over format will not cause irreparable damage to their hip pocket.
While one-day domestic cricket is now dependent on the shortest form for its very survival, it is also the one sending it towards a premature death. It has been forced to take up residence in spring not because it is undergoing a rebirth, but because its little brother is experiencing a growth spurt that demands more time and space to run its course. This process requires greater parental attention from the ECB, the by-product of which so often leads to the neglect of the sibling who was once the centre of attention. But times change. Media mogul Kerry Packer brought the gift of limited overs cricket, white balls, coloured clothing and floodlit matches into the world, and these are now the very ingredients that have laied the foundations for a new empire, with some minor tweaks. If the English clone of the Big Bash does indeed grow to the levels that the ECB expects of it, and the Royal London One-Day cup is all that is left as a lesser, black and white style alternative to colour television, we may witness the kind of slow degradation of 50-over cricket that has seen it become somewhat redundant down-under.
In Australia, domestic one-day cricket has been stripped back to its bare essentials and is firmly entrenched in the shadow of t20 cricket, which continues to increase its coverage, extending as it is now beyond the realms of four-day cricket. It too has been forced to take place while the other major sporting codes are in full throttle, leaving it little to feed off both financially and logistically. Its hiding away from the major television stations on a channel formed to show cheaply produced overseas entertainment programs is a sign of its worth to both the viewer and CA. Rarely is it played at international venues either. That became an unnecessary expense some four years ago, around the same time CA decided it was best that the ODC be played in a block so to not detract from the main event.
The ODC was given a shiny new exterior in 2010 to bring it into line with cricket’s new era. At this stage, the competition was still spread across the summer, giving it exposure to the informed cricket fanatic and the novice looking for live sport to fill the off-season void. The innings of both sides were split into segments of 20 and 25 overs, effectively giving the spectator two t20 games to enjoy. This concept would fail to catch on though, and was in part responsible for the woes Australia faced later that year at the Cricket World Cup, where they only narrowly avoided the humiliation of missing out on a quarter-finals berth. CA responded swiftly the following year, returning the domestic one-day competition to its original setup. But with interest in the fifty over format outside of international cricket on the wane, and the new Big Bash League featuring eight new city-based teams proving a hit with fans, the ODC was reformed for the third time in as many years. At the renegotiating of the television rights in 2013, it was agreed between broadcaster and CA that the number of games played during the competition would be reduced, most likely to cut costs, and that it would also be played across a two and a half week period during October. In this moment, the ODC was given an expiry date and funeral plans were arranged. Now the future seems bleak.
The signs are all there that the Royal London One-Day cup is heading down this hazardous road. Already it has been pruned to 8 matches per side and starved of the summer’s limelight. One can only wonder how on earth it will manage squeezing in amongst the wall-to-wall t20 action that will take place when the circus begins in 2020; a year that will see two tournaments run in close proximity to each other. As supporters of county cricket, this should come as a major disappointment. The one-day final at Lord’s is a part of the fabric of county cricket. Yet we stand a chance to lose this history if the shortest format is allowed to spread like wildfire, without control and destroying everything in its wake. T20 cricket is a necessary ‘evil’ in England because it is falling behind the other countries and missing the gravy train. Every sport has its limit though; the point at which the race is extended from an 800 meter sprint to a 5 kilometer marathon, tiring the fans and maybe even losing a few along the way. Cricket in the 21st century is about balance. Without it, the game is a meaningless progression of franchise tournament to bilateral test series. 50-over and four day cricket give the game character at all levels. The shortest format is simply a rich uncle giving out $100 dollar handouts at Christmas time to supplement the mediocre income of a struggling relative, allowing them to stand on their own two feet.
It’s a shame these circumstances have come about, because innings like Van der Merwe’s on Saturday need to be seen and celebrated more than they currently are. Only the one-day format allows a run-chase to ebb and flow in the same fashion as Somerset’s did. There is simply no time in t20 cricket to recover from 5-22, and twenty overs will seldom see a batsman walking in at number seven score an unbeaten 165. Chances are we’ll see something just as remarkable in the weeks leading up to the Lord’s final. The question is, who will care to remember these occasions when t20 cricket jazzes things up and becomes the measuring stick by which every performance is judged? Certainly not the new cricketing audience that travels for the under-card and misses the main bout. They are preoccupied with the novelties of t20 cricket and the gung-ho approach to game-play that makes it far more palatable. But they are also essential to the growth and development of the game at all levels, and administrators hope that they can be converted to fans of the other formats as easily as they were brought into the game. That is little consolation though for the one-day game at domestic level, which is currently on life support and is most likely to be the first casualty in this bitter war between the institutionalised and cricket’s own hippie movement. T20, it seems, comes at a cost. Whether that be a high-profile player walking away from their national side to join the globetrotting elite, or the longer formats’ nose-diving in popularity. There is, and will always be, a price to pay.
For now at least, we can bask in the glory of a summer that hasn’t yet seen 50-over cricket shoved into the basement and reserved for a small window in between, or before, the championship and the two t20 leagues. Unfortunately, it is the weakest link at both domestic and international level and will continue to fade from existence with every passing summer. This year, however, is filled with hope and optimism for the one-day format. The Champions Trophy will, for a few weeks in June, put a stop to all other competitions, allowing it to recapture the glory of yesteryear when it was the prized possession of cricket boards. What this means for the popularity and re-emergence of the format at domestic level remains to be seen. But if crowds flock to the games like they did so four years ago when Dhoni led his men to a resurgent victory over the hosts at Edgbaston, we can safely assume that one-day cricket still has a pulse, albeit a faint one, that can in some way be transferred to the county circuit. Never before has a decade been so crucial to the long-term health of cricket’s original trend-setter. What will be its legacy?