Where does the ODI go next?
Most people prefer a free coffee mug to a free chocolate bar. But if they are given the chocolate bar, they do not want to swap it for a coffee mug. The paradox shows how humans value what they have, even if it is not what they would have originally chosen: status-quo bias.
Now imagine a world in which one-day international cricket did not exist. It seems hard to believe that administrators, already grappling with how to ensure that T20 and Test cricket can peacefully coexist, and how the schedule can be sanitised, would choose to invent a third format. Two distinct formats, as World Rugby has with rugby union and sevens, would probably seem ample. But because ODIs already exist, and humans are biased to the status quo, they are likely to remain for a long time - and those who run the sport are committed to ensuring that they do.
Since 2005, when the ICC introduced the Supersub rule, allowing teams to make a substitution mid-match, rules in ODI cricket have been tinkered with repeatedly. In a sense, the very fact of these changes has betrayed the uncertain position of ODI cricket in the modern cricket world, and a dissatisfaction with how many matches have played out.
The ICC is conscious of criticism that the rules have changed too much, and believes that ODI cricket has now finally reached a point where the rules do not need further tweaking. The only exception is the ball itself: ideally, the ICC would like to revert to using one ball for the duration of each innings, rather than one from each end, if one sufficiently durable could be found.
After the last World Cup, rules on fielding restrictions were relaxed to protect bowlers, whom ICC chief executive David Richardson described as on a "hiding to nothing". Now, especially with restrictions on the size of bats in the offing, the ICC believes that the game favours both aggressive batting and bowling, and combines the fast scoring of T20 with the aggressive bowling of Test cricket. There is no appetite for more radical tweaks to empower bowlers, like allowing them more than ten overs an innings.
For years, T20's impact on ODI cricket was barely detectable. In 2002, the year before T20 cricket was launched, the average run rate in ODIs was 4.94 an over; a decade later, it had only risen to 5.05. In 2012, batting-friendly rule changes were introduced. After a time lag of about a year, there has been a revolution in ODI run rates, which soared to 5.50 in 2015 and were almost as high last year, even with the more bowler-friendly laws. The ability to chase large targets has been particularly transformed: since the start of 2013, 27% of chases of between 300 and 324 have been successful, compared to 17% between 2001 and 2013, according to the statistician Ric Finlay. Confidence, power and skill matter far more than whether or not an extra fielder is allowed outside the 30-yard circle.
|Score range||Pre 2001||2001-13||From Jan 1, 2013|
Increasingly, international teams in Test and T20I cricket are distinct, with only a coterie of outstanding players involved in both squads. And ODI teams now barely have any divergence at all from T20Is; only two members of England's ODI squad for India are not in their T20I squad too.
"People are playing 50-over cricket with a T20 mindset," observes Jason Gillespie, the Adelaide Strikers coach. The ODI game has effectively evolved away from players like Jonathan Trott, whose reliability and orthodoxy from No. 3 was integral to England reaching the final of the 2013 Champions Trophy. The new normal is for an entire batting line-up of 360-degree players well versed in six-hitting; Joe Root, Trott's ultimate successor, has a strike rate of 94.25 since the 2015 World Cup, compared to Trott's 77.06 overall.
The leaps in batting have also made bowling in ODIs more interesting to watch; wicket-to-wicket trundlers now have little worth. In the World Cup, New Zealand, the spiritual home of canny dibbly-dobblers, embraced taking wickets with the new ball as offering the best chance of inoculating themselves against a batting onslaught later, and other countries are increasingly mimicking the bowling aggression of Australia and New Zealand in the opening overs.
"It is best to stick to your lines and bowl normally with correct field settings in the first ten overs," says Ian Pont, a fast-bowling coach in three World Cups, who believes that pace bowlers have ample room for improvement in the death overs. "They have to be better at delivering the balls they are trying to execute. You cannot simply put the ball on a length and hope for the batsman missing it anymore. You have to get past the bat. And that is done through speed changes, trajectory, crease angles as well as length control."
Last year, the other great asset in ODIs was the legspinner who could turn the ball both ways. Four such bowlers - Adam Zampa, Adil Rashid, Imran Tahir and Rashid Khan - were among the top 11 wicket-takers. Legspinners have always been prized assets, in all forms of the game, but it seems notable that these spinners earned their ODI places partly through their reputation in T20 cricket.
All these changes are being abetted by the pitches. "The wickets in T20s and ODIs aren't anything like those in Tests," Gillespie says. Benign wickets now produce copious high-scoring games, but also risk making the tempo of ODIs predictable. Occasionally, low-scoring games - like the Australia-South Africa tied semi-final in 1999, when the teams both scored 213 runs - can be the most captivating of all.
There is some recognition that a little more variety could enrich the ODI format, though there seems little incentive for home boards to move away from flat wickets, which offer the best prospect of a complete game, and thus maximum money-making potential. Though better batting conditions would seem to make it more attractive to chase, recent statistics don't bear this out: since the start of 2014, teams chasing have won 171 games while losing 179, and more teams have chosen to bat first than to chase.
If ODI cricket is mirroring T20 in becoming more batting-friendly, it is proving much slower in embracing another change: the use of sophisticated data analysis. Nathan Leamon, the England performance analyst and founder of CricViz, refers to both T20 and Test cricket as "reasonably pure forms of the game", in the sense that the respective value of runs and wickets changes little from match to match. In T20 the emphasis is almost always on scoring as quickly as possible; in Tests it is about scoring as many as possible.
But in ODIs, the balance between these two aims - scoring quickly, and scoring as many as possible - is fluid, dependent on the match situation and conditions. As a result, Leamon believes, it is tricky to get enough of a sample size of data to form worthwhile analysis of a player. A middle-order batsman might have a slower rate of scoring against spin bowling, say, not because he is incapable of scoring quickly against spin but because the top order often collapses, forcing him to consolidate through low-risk cricket. Sanitising the ODI schedule will make it even harder for teams to conduct meaningful data analysis on ODIs because of the lower volume of matches, especially as leading international players barely play domestic 50-over cricket at all.
The ICC has two main strategies to make ODIs more appealing. First, creating scarcity rather than flooding the market. In 2016 - a year that included the World T20, and no 50-over ICC events - Australia still played 29 ODIs; in the future, the ICC envisages each nation playing only 12 ODIs in years without global ODI tournaments.
Second, giving bilateral matches a proper structure. From 2019, the ICC expects to introduce a 13-team league in ODI cricket, which would see each team - the ten Full Members, Afghanistan, Ireland, and a third Associate - play every other in a three-game series home or away over a three-year cycle, amounting to 36 matches per side. After three years there would be a champion, possibly after a play-off between the top two teams. The top teams in the league - perhaps the top seven - would automatically reach the World Cup, so the structure would effectively double up as World Cup qualification.
It is envisaged that the ODI league would be paired with a T20I league that features the same 13 teams, so all limited-overs tours would mirror England's upcoming series in India - three ODIs and three T20Is. The fourth year of the ODI cycle - the year culminating in the World Cup - would include qualifiers for the final World Cup spots and bilateral matches outside the league.
Such a new structure would continue the tradition of the men's game learning from innovations trialled first in the women's game. Women bowled overarm before men, and were also first to stage a World Cup and T20 international cricket. Now, the Women's ODI Championship, launched three years ago, could be another pioneer, belatedly bringing structure and clear consequences for victory and defeat to the ODI game.
The ICC is confident: there are no alternative structures being discussed. It is understood that the reforms could be passed as soon as February, but - partly because of how interconnected all the proposed structural changes for the sport are - perhaps will not be until the ICC meetings in April or June. While the ICC would organise the structure, commercial rights to all matches would, like for bilaterals now, be sold solely by the home boards. That means that some matches would be loss-making, at least initially.
It is hoped that such a reform will not only make ODIs more exciting but will also get more people watching them. The context of a league system could benefit ratings in two ways: with more riding on matches, fans of the two countries involved would have more incentive to watch. And those from different countries would have a new reason to follow neutral games, because of how they could impact upon their country's prospects of winning the league, gaining automatic World Cup qualification, or avoiding relegation from the ODI league to the World Cricket League Championship. Like in the Premier League, the ICC hopes the ODI league will provide intrigue at the top, bottom and middle.
For all the prophecies of the death of ODI cricket, viewing figures for recent ICC 50-over events - the World Cups of 2011 and 2015, and the 2013 Champions Trophy - have been outstanding. But bilateral T20Is now attract about 20% more viewers than bilateral ODIs.
Despite the success of the last Champions Trophy, some in the ICC believe that this year's tournament could prove to be the last. Even if that is not the case, the tournament appears unlikely to figure in the next ICC rights cycle, from 2023 to 2031. The future of the World Cup beyond 2023 is altogether more certain, and South Africa have ambitions to host the 2027 tournament.
"We believe ODI cricket should continue," says Tony Irish, the executive chairman of the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations. "The players still see the 50-over World Cup as the premier ICC event. However, bilateral ODIs desperately need regulation and context. We support the proposed formation of an ODI league." As part of the wider reforms, Irish also advocates three or four windows a year for T20 leagues, although it now appears unlikely they will be created.
Earlier this month, the ODI turned 46. It has had a curious life - initially derided as a gimmick, then wholeheartedly embraced as cricket's cash cow, before, in the last decade, taking on the role of awkward middle child. It faces a future of being played less. Beyond the World Cup, it must reassert its relevance.
None of this, though, means its demise is imminent. ODIs have survived many brickbats, and yet remain integral to the ICC's plans for the future of the sport. So while ODIs would surely not have been invented today if they hadn't already existed, the curious case of the coffee mug and the chocolate bar shows that this is no reason to expect their demise any time soon.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts