Thursday, October 12, 2006

Why I hate one-day cricket

I just realized that I've had plenty of uncomplimentary things to say about ODI cricket on fiverupees, without ever stating my reasons for doing so. This article covers a fair deal of it, and I agree with every word. It specifically mentions how much of a batsmen's game it has become, what with flat tracks, restrictions on bouncers, boundaries brought in, power plays and whatnot. But there's more. A lot more.

The level of skill
Think of the best innings you've ever seen in ODI cricket and the best you've ever seen in test cricket, and compare them. There really is no comparison, is there? For instance, my top 5 for test cricket, in no particular order, is Laxman's 281, Lara's 277, Lara's 153, Akmal's 113 and Steve Waugh's 200. No ODI innnings, no matter how brilliant, can come close to matching any of those innings. In test cricket, batsmen are allowed to build an innings, which doesn't necessarily mean play slowly. What it does mean is that a batsman is allowed to go at his pace, and we are treated to the full extent of his artistry.

What about bowling? Think of McGrath at Lords last year. Or Ambrose in Trinidad in 94. Or Wasim in Chennai in 99. When's the last time you saw high-class bowling like that in ODIs? Have you ever wondered why you don't see bowling like that? It's because in ODIs, bowlers are taught to keep it tight, not too much experimentation, they have 2 slips if they're lucky, and they count themselves fortunate if they don't give 5 runs in an over. They're not trying to get wickets which is exactly what a bowler's job is. They're just trying to not give the batsman too much width, and hey, if they happen to get a wicket, that's cool too.

The difference in skill set is reflected in the types of players who are considered "good" in each form of the game. Notice I did not say "great", because all great players, whether batsmen or bowlers, are brilliant in both forms. The only exception I can think of is Dravid's first 3-4 years in ODIs. But other than that, all great players play at a high level in both forms.

No, I'm talking about the second tier. Remember Michael Bevan? At one point, he was considered the best ODI batsman in the world, with some justification. The only problem was his test average was something like 20. Why? Because he couldn't play the short ball. I don't mean he couldn't score runs off the short ball. I mean he was so petrified of, and so technically ill-equipped for, the short ball that it was sad and somewhat unbecoming of an Australian. How can the "best batsman in the world" NOT KNOW HOW TO PLAY THE SHORT BALL? Isn't that somewhat of an essential part of the game? And how can you respect a form of the game where the best player doesn't know how to handle an elementary part of it?

The list is endless. Think Ian Harvey and what would happen if he were to bowl consistently in tests. Think Afridi on non-Asian pitches. Think Robin Singh and Ajay Jadeja. Think the entire New Zealand team from the mid-to-late 90s, except for Vettori and Twose. Think Gayle's bowling. Think Ijaz's batting. I could go on, but I think I've proven my point: you have to be less of a player to make an impact in ODI cricket than you do in test cricket.

The formula
One-day cricket is formulaic to the point where it is entirely predictable. Not predictable as in you know what's going to happen, because none of us are fortune-tellers, least of all me. But predictable in the sense that you know what the other team is going to try to do. First 20, bash it. Next 15, milk it. Next 8, up it, but be careful. Last 7, bash it. Isn't that it? Haven't I just described the essence of ODI cricket in less than 20 words? Could you reduce the essence of test cricket to even 200? (No, you could not).

The problem with the formulaic nature of ODIs is that there are very few surprises. You know exactly what you're going to get. But once you get past the first 90 minutes of the first morning in a test match, you have absolutely no idea. Anything could happen. Test cricket keeps me involved because it keeps me guessing. Remember Bangalore in 2005? We had a lead of about 100-150 after the first innings, and started batting some time in the middle of the fourth day. From then on, you could feel the electricity. When would we declare? How would Afridi play? How would Ganguly counter? Would Kumble bowl down the legside? How much was enough, given Sehwag was in the form of his life? Should we put them in tonight, to have two bites of the cherry, as they say? Test cricket throws up situations like that all the time, because it's not formulaic. Every test has its own identity and DNA, assuming the pitch is even half decent. It allows for twists and turns which ODI cricket does not, at least not to the scale of test cricket. Which brings me to...

5 days, 5 times the fun
The great thing about test cricket is it's not over as quickly. I don't mean just for us, as viewers. I mean for the teams. Rarely in test cricket will you know for sure which team is going to win after even the second day. This is because, as trite as it sounds, every day is a new day, and a chance for the team trailing to make a comeback in to the game. Think Multan 2005. We bat first, make something like 260/270. England start batting on the second day, and by the end of it, are only a little bit behind (forget how much, look it up on cricinfo) and have lost only 3/4 wickets. Now at this point, England are seriously ahead of the game. Pakistan have had a horrible first two days. But they can still come back. It really doesn't take anything out of the realm of possibility for it to happen. You have to try to restrict the lead to about a 100/120, which means getting 6/7 wickets for 140/150. This is eminently possible. Then you have to put up a decent score, something like 350, which although difficult, is also eminently possible. Then you have to hope your tearaway quickie and your leggie can win you the game with 200 behind them on the fifth day. Again, difficult but eminently possible. Well, guess what happened? All of those things. Why? Because every day is a new day. Pakistan woke up on day 3, said ok, let's forget about everything, and just try to outplay England today. Then they woke up on day 4, said ok, let's forget about everything, and try to outplay England again. Suddenly they wake up on day 5, and realize they have a chance to win the game. And they do.

What's amazing about the Multan game is that it wasn't even that unusual. Tests often unfold with one team dominating one day, then the other fighting back the next, and so on. Multan was a fairly typical game. You want atypical excitement? Calcutta, 2001. Edgbaston, 2005. Chennai, 1999. Adelaide, 1993. Karachi, 1994. Barbados, 1999. I could go on, but once again, I think I've proven my point: test cricket contains more twists and turns, and always gives teams a chance to fight back.

The rules
The BBC piece I linked to talked a little bit about this, but I want to take it further. Test cricket is the most pure form of the game, because it is unadulterated by bullshit regulations. Powerplays? One bouncer an over? Small boundaries? Bullshit, bullshit and bullshit respectively. And don't even get me started on the pitches they prepare. ODIs are designed for the casual fan and for the expansion of the game. They are designed for people who don't appreciate what cricket is, and what it is meant to be. Which is fine, but please, don't force me to watch another game where scoring 7 an over is considered normal. Test cricket is meant to be a battle between a bowler trying to get the batsman out, and the batsman (a) trying to survive and (b) trying to score runs. ODI cricket takes (a) out of the equation. It's just a matter of if my crazy innings by Dhoni can beat your crazy innings by Gilchrist. That's boring.

4 possible results, not 3
The most common complaint I hear from casual fans is "how can you like a game which they play for 5 days and then nobody wins?" My counter is, "how can you not?"Some of the best and most intriguing tests I've seen are draws. I'll give you two examples, both recent, and neither of them was the only-one-team-can-win-this-and-the-other-is-fighting-for-its-life variety.

Earlier this year, India toured the West Indies. The first two tests were drawn, somewhat unfortunately from India's point of view, because they deserved to be 2-0 up at that point. So what happens in the third? The Windies pile on something like 600. India give up a substantial lead. West Indies bat till the fifth morning in their second innings. Set India 400 odd to win, at approximately 4/4.5 an over. Difficult. But interesting.

So what happens? Sehwag creams a 70-odd. Lara looks shit scared, because he realizes things could still go possibly wrong. I feel I should restate the fact that India were chasing more than 4 an over, on a fifth day. When you give a team 400 to chase, and less than a day, you expect that only one team can win. But India's start is something like 100/0 in 25 overs. Like I said, Lara looks worried. But then a couple of wickets go down, Laxman and Dravid come to the crease. They're going to shut up shop now, right? One medium player, one slowish player, chance of losing, chasing more than 4 an over. Not going for it, right? That's what I thought. Only Dravid and Laxman kept playing it like it was the middle overs of an ODI. Knocking it around for ones and twos, odd boundary here and there, and you realize they're scoring 4 an over. Without any problems, they're scoring 4 an over. They weren't taking any undue risks, they're just doing their Laxman/Dravid thing, as if they're playing Australia or something. They have a 100-odd partnership, when Laxman gets out. Required rate is still above 4, in fact, may have even been around 5 at this point. Who walks in? Yuvraj? Kaif? Nope. It's M.S. Fucking Dhoni. I swear when he walked out, I jumped out of my chair, and yelled to no one in particular, "They're going for it! They're fucking going for it!" Now at this point, India need about 150 more, at about 5 an over, with Dravid and Dhoni at the crease with Yuvraj and Kaif to come. You tell me it's not possible.

Of course, Dhoni got out pretty soon, and then India shut up shop. But for a brief period there, it suddenly hit everyone that India was looking to chase more than 400 in less than a day. That was crazy. The game ended in a draw, but who could tell me that wasn't one of the most exciting days of cricket ever?

There was a similar situation at Old Trafford last year. I don't really remember the details all that well, but England set Australia something in the 400 range as well. They had them in trouble throughout the fifth day, as Australia kept losing wickets. Only they didn't lose Ponting. He kept batting through the wickets falling around him, through the unbelievable bowling, through the raucous crowd. Warne joined him with a substantial numbers of overs still to play out, and a good 150 or so off the target. So what happens? Warne sticks around. Hits a couple of boundaries. Ponting keeps carrying on, playing one of the truly great captain's innings. They put on a solid partnership, though I forget exactly how much. I think it was in the 60-70 range. But what I remember most from that day was a 2 (or maybe it was a 3). Australia, to win, would need a minor miracle; at the point which I'm talking about, they needed 7 an over or something with 3 wickets in hand. But I saw Ponting take off for a second (or third, I forget) run that was completely unnecessary. It wasn't to farm the bowling, because Warne was playing fine. It was to get the extra run. For a few moments, I think, Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne thought they could pull off the win. It was such an Australian moment. If you didn't watch it, then you simply wouldn't understand. Again, like the Dhoni situation, Warne got out (followed soon by Ponting), so there was no chance of even getting close. But the fact that they even contemplated it completely blew my mind. It was one of the most memorable days of cricket I'd ever seen. And what I can guarantee is that no ODI match would ever come close to replicating it.

The points I've outlined are far from the only reasons I prefer test cricket. But they are the most salient ones, and given I actually have real work to do, will have to suffice for now. Until later, fiverupee-ers.

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