Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cricket Australia on a roll

Australian cricket is arguably in decline -- after all, how long could they be expected to dominate as thoroughly as they did? But meanwhile, Cricket Australia seems to be on a roll. At least, they appear to floating some interesting trial balloons!

Separate Test and T20 teams

The first one came a few days ago when James Sutherland, the CEO of Cricket Australia, suggested that Australia could soon have separate Test and T20 teams playing simultaneously. On the face of it, a novel and even scandalous idea! How can there be two "Australian" teams? But surely, it's not as scandalous as England's two Test teams way back in the 1929-30 season. Then, England (or rather, MCC) actually played simultaneously in New Zealand and West Indies -- and won both those series! All those Tests were, and still are, classified as official Tests. But of course, at the time, England were a world power and the ICC was the Imperial Cricket Conference, so they got away with it.

More recently, at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, cricket was included as a medal sport. India and Pakistan had a pre-scheduled series in Sharjah at the same time, so both teams ended up sending weakened teams to Kuala Lumpur, and simultaneously playing full ODIs in Sharjah. However, the Commonwealth Games matches were not classified as ODIs (although they got List-A status of course). A similar situation seems set to occur again at the Asian Games later this year in China -- clashing with pre-planned series (for India, at least).

Back however, to Cricket Australia's idea -- separate T20 and Test sides. Why is that inconceivable? So what if there are two "Australian" teams? Clearly, Test cricket and T20 are very different sports... it's hard for me to even call T20 "cricket", as I've argued earlier. So it's like a country having a hockey team and an ice-hockey team at the same time! Sure the sports are similar in many ways, but overall they're so different that it's perfectly reasonable to call them two different sports. I think over time, Test (or first-class) and T20 (or even List-A) cricket will drift apart so much that it'll be easy to accept that they are different sports. Players will specialize in one or the other sport/format from a young age, so that separate teams will naturally arise. Already today, probably close to half the T20 internationals cannot find a place in their corresponding Test sides!

In the bargain, the 50-over ODI seems destined to die, neither satisfying the purists nor the bang-bang T20 audience. Which brings us to the second trial balloon floated by CA this week!

Two-innings One-dayers

So Cricket Australia is considering a new domestic competition in this new two-innings format, where each team will play 20 (or 25) overs in an innings. Actually "innings" is a misnomer here, because the idea is to carry forward the state of the game between a team's first and second innings (kinda like baseball). The batsmen only get one chance to bat, and the bowlers still only get to bowl their allotted quota of overs. Things don't start afresh in the second "innings", as they usually do in first-class cricket. So it's basically a 40 (0r 50) over a side, single-innings match.

The idea itself is not very new -- Sachin Tendulkar suggested it a few months ago, at which time I'd written a blog post supporting this "20-20-20-20" format, with a few suggested tweaks -- the main ones being that all 10 wickets should be available in each 20-over split, field restrictions should be eliminated, etc. What's new however is that a national cricket board is actively considering implementing it.

My take is that both these "innovations" by CA are welcome, and worth trying out. Cricket has already, clearly, split into two forms. The "pure" form still retains its attraction, if not to (lots of) spectators, then to the players themselves. Because as any player will tell you, Test cricket remains the best test of skill, unencumbered by restrictions on bowling and fielding. And the shorter form (whether T20 or 20-20-20-20) will clearly be attractive commercially, pulling in the spectators, TV audiences and advertising revenues. The demands (in terms of skill, physical, mental) of these two forms on the players are so different that it seems inevitable that specialization will occur naturally. Secondly, the two-innings format should also be tried out. The T20 version is a bit too short -- it doesn't provide enough advertiser inventory (time) to make two-country series viable. You need two T20 games in a day -- and thus, a four-team competition, at least -- to rake in the moolah. Might as well have a single "20-20-20-20" game instead in a day, between two teams!