First the good news. World Cup 2023 is a grand success. This is the last instalment of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) events cycle (2015-23), for which media rights were sold nine years back. Market spends have increased enormously since, to the benefit of the ICC as well as its broadcasters. India is playing host and its rockstars are holding the stage. Regardless of the home team winning the final or not on Sunday at Ahmedabad, expect the biggest stadium in cricket to be jam packed.
When the ICC reached out to media planners at the start of the tournament; the shifting narrative due to T20 explosion, the identity crisis facing ODI cricket, the non-inclusive (ten team) format were all outlined as challenges. Those fears have been allayed by record turnouts – both in stadia and on air.
But it would be shortsighted to treat this World Cup as a referendum on ODI cricket. With the home team having a dream run, it did not matter if it was a T20 or an ODI World Cup, the crowds came flooding in. Not just for the home matches, a lot of the non-India matches were well attended too, taking the total spectator count past a million.
Looking at the upcoming cycle (2024-31), India despite being the game’s commercial hub, can only host three white-ball events. Four of the eight world events will be of the 50 overs format; two of these will be played outside India.
The more pertinent question is what happens to ODI matches between the World Cups, as former South Africa captain and administrator Graeme Smith recently told HT. “The World Cups will always be huge. The question is how much ODI cricket is played in-between and how do you give context to each bilateral cricket series,” he said.
According to the Mark Nicholas, commentator and now president of Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), bilateral ODIs are past their sell by date. He hasn’t found any backing from the cricket fraternity.
Strongly in favour of ODIs is Viv Richards; once holder of the highest individual score in the format (189*) and a slayer of bowling attacks. “This is the next important format after Test cricket. It gives the players enough time to accomplish an innings,” he said. The latest inductee in ICC’s Hall of Fame, Arvinda de Silva termed ODIs a mix of T2O’s power and fast pace, as well as Test cricket’s stamina and strategy.
These are not just voices from cricketers of a pre-T20 era, wanting to hold on to a product fast losing lustre. To many, a full 50 overs tournament has been fulfilling, after a diet of T20 overdose. The slow burn of ODIs has allowed Mohammed Shami to emerge a hero by setting up batters with his relentless length bowling, allowed Henrich Klassen to punish his body in the Mumbai heat and script a classic, let Glenn Maxwell play an innings of a lifetime and do justice to his maverick skills, something T20 would never allow. “The general sentiment is each format plays a specific role. ODIs tests cricketers in a different way to what T20s do,” said Anurag Dahiya, ICC CCO.
The ICC is in no hurry to call time on ODIs. Not necessarily because the legends say so. The broadcast deals are already in place for events in the Indian market for 2024-27 and for the England and South Africa markets (2024-31).
“Lot of sports would give their right arm to have three well-defined formats, catering to different requirements – T20s to open newer markets, ODIs testing cricketer’s other skills and Tests that has a smaller sub-group of fans but looked by players as the ultimate Test of their skills,” said Dahiya.
But if they went searching for a deeper meaning as sporting federations must, it’s evident that many bilateral matches are generating poor crowds, almost equivalent to Test cricket. Even in India, we have seen people preferring to escape the sun and make a crowd under lights only for the 2nd innings. It’s ODIs fundamental constitution – 100 overs spread across eight hours over three-and-half hours of T20 packaged for spectator-friendly prime-time.
No one has any clear answer if bilateral ODI cricket will survive the onslaught of T20 leagues world over. Perhaps it calls for some tweaks, of which there have been many in the past – cutting the duration from 60 to 50 overs and change in powerplay regulations.
As someone who understands market economics well, Ravi Shastri held an opinion, at least before the World Cup, that the powerplay flab needs to be cut and ODIs be played as 40-40 cricket. Sachin Tendulkar has called for it, in 2019, to be split ODIs into four innings of 25 overs each. Many others have had an opinion but no one is quite sure of whether it will be the solution to the problem that ODIs are currently facing.
Above all, cricket needs to constantly check so that it doesn’t kill the golden goose. Few global sports have a marquee event every year. And that’s over and above the annual IPL gala. What happens to ICC events when India, despite BCCI’s structures and programs performs poorly, like in the 2021 T20 World Cup? Where does cricket’s next-best fan-base come from? England, Australia or South Africa? Or the Americans, who are being wooed with the 2024 T20 World Cup. Once more, isn’t it down to the Indian diaspora?