ICC Champions Trophy update – guillotine looms large over Australia’s finals aspirations

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Australia must win their game against Bangladesh or face fierce backlash. Picture: DNA India 

We’re three days into the Champions Trophy and already it is becoming clear who the contenders are for the crown. England cruised to victory against Bangladesh, who put up a valiant fight but were ultimately lacking star power at the back end of their batting innings. New Zealand gave Australia a good scare and, had rain not ruined proceedings, you can’t help but think that the Kiwis would’ve won that game given the way they started with the ball. Finch, Warner and Henriques were already back in the shed when play was called, and the run rate was quickly creeping up on the Australians like a Lion stalking a Zebra in the dead of night.

South Africa also got their tournament off to a winning start on a slow, placid Oval wicket. Sri Lanka performed exceptionally well with the ball to restrict South Africa to a sub 300 total, but fell short in the run chase despite a strong opening stand from Dickwella and captain Tharanga. Had a few more batsmen chipped in, Sri Lanka would’ve given South Africa an almighty fright. But the guile of Imran Tahir proved too much for a Matthews-less Sri Lanka who, much like Bangladesh, are missing the star power in their late to middle order, making any chase over 325 a real struggle.

The slowness with which Sri Lanka got through their fifty overs yesterday evening was nothing short of farcical. It is no secret that one-day cricket is withering on the vine and slow over rates aren’t helping its cause. At one point during last night’s game, Sri Lanka had just twenty minutes to bowl ten overs. How the umpires allowed it to get to this point is beyond comprehension and goes to show that the ICC must do something to ensure we are not sent to sleep by batsmen calling for a refreshment every second over.

Banning the captain for one match is quite clearly failing to deter sides from taking their sweet time in setting fields, or from captains talking to their bowler as if they are relaying Chinese whispers. The only way to stamp this out is by introducing in-game penalties which are enforced by the on-field umpires. For example, if Sri Lanka go 45 minutes beyond their allotted time, and the batsmen aren’t calling for drinks at regular intervals, runs should be added to the opposition total. Whether this means adding 5 runs for every 10 minutes the bowling side goes over time, or cutting the innings off at a certain point, is up to the ICC to decide upon but must be made post-haste to ensure we are spared the nonsense that goes on between overs. Bottom line – fail to make a change now and risk seeing fans turn away from the one-day format in their droves.

Now that this little pet-hate of mine is out of the way, we can move on and talk about the cricket. Australia might be just one game into their campaign but already they are under great pressure to progress beyond the group stage. Rain is predicted for their clash with Bangladesh on Monday meaning they are at risk of going into their final group stage match against England with two no results to their name.

The odds are stacked firmly against them, so it is of paramount importance that they get the team formula right for the remaining matches. Last game, Henriques got the nod ahead of Lynn. While I understand that the selectors may have gone this way because Henriques provides Smith with an extra bowling option if things go awry early, as they did against New Zealand, Lynn is too good a player to waste on water-boy duties. He can change the game in a matter of overs and has the ability to send the ball to Timbuktu no matter the circumstances or conditions. Imagine a top order of Finch, Warner, Smith, Lynn and Maxwell. It doesn’t get much better. These are some of the finest one-day players the world has to offer, not to mention some of the biggest hitters on show, and will ensure Australia pass 300 more times than they fail. Take Lynn out of the mix though and it doesn’t look quite as threatening. Henriques is a fine player but he would be better suited down the order. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a spot for him currently, as Hastings showed on Friday how valuable he is as Australia’s fourth seamer.

On that note, I’m not quite sure what to make of Australia’s bowling effort. It was brilliant at times and horrible at others. Hastings and Hazlewood were the pick of the bowlers and changed the game when it looked like Ronchi might take it away from them. But even they were a little expensive and seemed powerless to stem the flow of runs when Ronchi and Williamson were in full flight. If it weren’t for some late innings brilliance from Hazlewood that sparked a lower order collapse, or the constant rain delays that put the game on hold, Australia would’ve been staring down the barrel of a mammoth total that might have ended their campaign there and then.

This is a telling tournament for Australia. They are still champions of the world but a number of the players who took them to that World Cup final are now making ends meat in franchise T20 tournaments around the globe. An Australian attack without Johnson is a weaker one no doubt, as is a batting order missing Clarke, Watson and an in form Bailey. In the two years since the World Cup trophy was held aloft, Australia have been tremendous on home soil in the one-day format and abysmal against the stronger nations away. They thrashed Pakistan at home last summer and India the year before. But were themselves defeated twice in the Chappell-Hadlee series, and against South Africa last October. More embarrassing the latter could not have been.

So there is plenty riding on this tournament for Australia. We will certainly know more about the side following the next two games then we did coming in to the Champions Trophy. Are they still capable of mixing it with the world’s best or are we witnessing a fall from grace bigger than Texas?

Monday’s game against Bangladesh is huge. Lose that and, suddenly, Australian one-day cricket is in a state of flux. I can hear the knives being sharpened already…

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/