One-Dayers: Live Free Or Die

Posted on February 10, 2013


By SB Tang

In Australia, one form of international cricket is dying.

“One-dayers” we call them, in the land down under where they were born. In the rest of the cricketing world, they have come to be known as “Oh-Dee-Ayes”. I’ll refer to them as “one-dayers” in the Australian context, “ODIs” in the context of any other specific country, and “one-day internationals” in a general context.

I am writing this, as an Australian, from the Australian perspective.

One-dayers are the Gotham City within our borders, but not the rest of the world’s. Indeed, in much of the rest of the world, ODIs are in ruder health than ever and it is Test cricket which plays the role of the once mighty, ancient decaying city.

Ironically enough, Australia (or, perhaps, more precisely, an Australian) invented, popularised and commercialised one-day international cricket in its (broadly) current form: coloured clothing, day-night cricket, white balls, the fielding circle and its concomitant restrictions, and the limitation of each side’s innings by reference to a maximum number of overs bowled. Many, if not all, of these individual innovations had already been pioneered — for example, the fielding circle had been tried in South Africa’s domestic one-day competition[1] and night cricket with white balls had been practised in Australia as far back as 1932 by Western Suburbs at Concord Oval[2] — but it wasn’t until Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in 1977 that they were all combined into one form of the game, played between national teams.

One-dayers are dying. The question is: can they be saved?

In order to answer that question, we must first ascertain why they have fallen into such a ruinous state of unpopularity.

One-day internationals mean different things in and to the world’s different cricket-playing nations. In Australia, one-dayers performed a very specific, important function — they served as the international cricket consumable good, available at night, outside working hours, for Australian cricket fans who had missed their home city’s one and only Test match. That sounds like a passage from an introductory microeconomics textbook, but in Australia, the performance of that function was and is crucial to cricket’s continued prosperity as our national sport. To understand why, one must first understand a little of Australia’s peculiar geography and population demography.

Australians are small in number — our current population is approximately 22.92 million. Our island continent nation contains just six states (and two territories). In that vast, 7,692,024 square kilometre expanse, there are just six Test cricket grounds — one in each of the six state capital cities. Contrary to the Crocodile Dundee and Outback Steakhouse-fed myth of Australia as a quaint, rural idyll — a kind of present day Old West in the Antipodes — the vast majority of Australia’s small population is concentrated in the cities.

According to the World Bank, Australia’s current urban population, as a percentage of total population, is 89.34 per cent, ranking us 26th in the world. This is a figure of Warwick Armstrong-esque proportions and importance — it means that Australia is more urbanised than the United States (82.63 per cent), Canada (80.77 per cent), the United Kingdom (79.76 per cent), Pakistan (36.55 per cent), India (31.66 per cent), Bangladesh (28.87 per cent), Sri Lanka (15.21 per cent), New Zealand (86.29 per cent) and South Africa (62.43 per cent). Yes, you read that correctly — Australia is more urbanised than the United States. Somehow, I doubt that this is a fact familiar to many of the lucky recipients of the one million free steak dinners that Outback Steakhouse gave away in the United States in 2011.

Moreover, of the approximate 20.47 million Australians who reside in urban areas, nearly half live in the nation’s two largest cities — Melbourne (with an estimated population of 4.17 million people) and Sydney (with an estimated population of 4.63 million people).

These peculiar demographics have a substantial impact on Australian cricket. In any one Australian summer, the Australian cricket team plays a maximum of six Test matches. Often, as in a typical modern Ashes summer, they only play five. Accordingly, each state capital city gets, at most, one Test match per summer, with Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, by far the smallest state in terms of population, missing out entirely in those summers where Australia only plays five home Test matches. The upshot of this is that the cities of Sydney and Melbourne, where almost half of Australians live, receive a solitary Test match each.

This problem of scarcity turns into a borderline cricketing famine when one considers that the Melbourne Test traditionally takes place around Boxing Day and the Sydney Test traditionally takes place just after New Year — the very time of the year when most Australians go on holiday and, if they don’t, then they’re probably required at work between 9am and 5pm when most of the Test match is being played.

So, the self-evident problem was this — the cricket-loving people of Australia were being quite literally starved of international cricket, especially international cricket played at times when they were not supposed to be at work or on holiday.

Then along came Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in 1977 and its invention of day-night one-day international cricket played between 2:20pm and 10:30pm. Problem solved — with the literal and metaphorical flick of a light switch. It is no coincidence that the eternal, defining moment of World Series Cricket was the sight of a full house at the SCG, at night, under lights, watching a day-night World Series Cricket match between Australia and the West Indies on Tuesday 28 November 1978. From his perch high in the SCG’s executive chamber, John Cornell, one of the commercial architects of World Series Cricket, said: “These people have found truth.”[3]

For the first time in history, the Australian public was able to pop down to the ground after work and watch Australia play cricket against another country. And therein lay the genius of day-nighters — they quenched a national thirst which, for over century, was thought unquenchable and had duly gone unquenched. So we drank of Packer’s brew, gulping it down gratefully, rapidly and just a tad greedily, like men whose throats had been parched by a decades-long desert crossing, never pausing to think whether there was a better, more efficient way to quench that thirst.

By the time I was growing up in Melbourne in the ’90s, one-dayers regularly drew larger crowds than Test matches and, at the decade’s dawn, Steve Waugh was just another 20-something Shield cricketer on the Test scrapheap. I’m not sure which of those facts is more implausible to the Twitter generation, but both are true. In the Ashes summer of 1994–95, for example, only 51,620 people turned up at the MCG on Boxing Day 1994 to watch the second day of the second Ashes Test, whereas 15 days later, 73,282 people — “the largest crowd of the summer” — turned up at the same ground to watch a dead-rubber day-nighter between the same teams.

By that stage, one-dayers had become so popular in Australia that they were viewed by many as a threat to the continued health, if not existence, of Test cricket itself. At the time, this was an entirely reasonable fear on the part of the cricket establishment — after all, if a dead-rubber day-nighter at the MCG could draw a crowd 21,662 greater than Boxing Day of a Melbourne Ashes Test, what hope was there for Test cricket?

Writing now in February 2013, it is difficult to explain just how widespread and reasonable was this fear in Australia in the early to mid ’90s, that one-dayers — the present-day Zeppo of the cricketing family — posed a clear and present danger to Test cricket. So I’ll refer to what is perhaps the neatest and most compelling piece of historical documentary evidence available to illustrate this point: Dean Jones et al, Dean Jones: One-Day Magic (1991).

For you see, back then, “Dean Jones was better than Viv Richards in Victoria”. To us, “Deano”, as everyone called him, was God, King and the World’s Greatest Number Three all rolled into one cool, Kookaburra bat-slinging, wrap-around sunglass-wearing, Victorian-born-and-bred (and damn proud of it) package.

So his words carried weight.

Here’s what he wrote at page 50 of Dean Jones: One-Day Magic (1991): “I really do think that in twenty years’ time Test cricket will be reduced and we’ll all be more interested in One-Day cricket.”

A couple of pages later, Jones expressed his “fear that in a few years they [that is, spinners] will all be in the same pigeon-hole as the drop-kick in Aussie rules — extinct!”[4] To be fair, Jones is one of the most perceptive cricket pundits going around — he got plenty of his predictions and analysis in the same book spot on and I’ll come to some of them later in this post.

Meanwhile, every summer in the early to mid ’90s, the small but dedicated band of cricket writers in Australia were doing their part to educate the public on the primacy and enduring beauty of Test cricket. These wonderful, educative, public interest pieces would typically include supportive quotes from, say, a Sir Donald Bradman, Neil Harvey or Arthur Morris. Indeed, it seemed that the surest way to elicit a public comment from these modest, self-effacing legends was to ask them a question about the future of Test cricket.

So, why did one-dayers, once the most popular kid in the Australian summer sporting firmament, slowly but inexorably become less popular than a BBM-ing South African in an England dressing room?

Broadly, there were two root causes. The first, ironically enough, lay in the newfound virtues of one-dayers themselves, the kind so eloquently extolled by Jones in Dean Jones: One-Day Magic (1991) — there was “more urgency, more adrenalin flowing [in one-dayers], than there generally is in a Test”,[5] therefore, professional cricketers playing one-dayers improved all facets of their game accordingly, from their running between the wickets to their batting, bowling and fielding:

Batters have to hit out more, improvise more, run their runs fasters, keep a constant check on run rates. Bowlers have to be more accurate, change their pace more, get back to the stumps for run-outs more …

Fielders have to have speed and, if they’re inside the circle, be deadly accurate with their throws, able to hit the stumps regularly from any angle. If they’re boundary riders they have to slide into the fences to save a run that might win, or lose, a match. And they have to be able to throw seventy metres, not in a high loop, but flat, at bail height all the way.[6]

Every syllable of this statement of fact is true. But perhaps what Jones didn’t anticipate was that his statement turned out to be not just a statement of fact with respect to how one-dayers were being played by Australia in 1991, but a prophecy as to how Australia would play Test cricket in the future.

Every syllable of that prophecy came true.

For its improbable fulfilment, we must sincerely thank two of Australia’s finest cricket captains: Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh, who incorporated all the best, innovative one-day skills that Jones correctly identified into the winning game plan of one of history’s greatest and most exciting Test teams. Thus, it was not one-dayers which cannabilised Test cricket’s audience as so many traditionalist doomsayers had feared; but rather, Test cricket which ended up cannabalising one-dayers of all their best parts. It stands as perhaps history’s only example of virtuous asset-stripping.

This revolution on the field, which began under Taylor and continued apace under Waugh, reached its apotheosis with Waugh’s glorious manifesto that, “[w]e always try to score 300 runs in a day and if you do that you will win most Tests”, not to mention his novel setting of a nine-man slips cordon in an ODI game against Zimbabwe in 1999.

Off the field, the good people of Australia responded to this overt, on-field revolution by voting with their feet — one-day crowds declined whilst Test crowds grew to a size worthy of an era as golden as any in Australia’s 136 year Test cricketing history.

By the summer of 2003–04, Waugh’s last as a Test cricketer, the opening day of the Boxing Day Test against India drew a crowd of 62,613 to the MCG, whereas the day-nighter against India at the same ground on 9 January 2004 drew a crowd of 63,271 — the crowd differential, which had been 21,662 in the MCG one-dayer’s favour in 1994–95, had shrunk to just 658 in its favour. By the Ashes summer of 2006–07, the crowd differential was 10,530 in the MCG Test match’s favour — the opening day of the Boxing Day Test drew a crowd of 89,155, whereas the 12 January 2007 day-nighter against England at the MCG could only attract a crowd of 78,625. This gap continued to widen until it reached 39,677 this Australian summer — a number in itself greater than any current English Test ground can accommodate — as the opening day of the Boxing Day Test against Sri Lanka attracted a crowd of 67,138 to the MCG, whereas the 11 January 2013 day-nighter against Sri Lanka at the same ground could only draw a paltry crowd of 27,461.

This dramatic change in the Australian public’s preferences was one of those “silent revolutions transforming cricket” that Dr WG Grace averred to more than a century ago.[7] It seems like only yesterday that Michael Bevan, with four needed to win off the last ball of a day-nighter against the West Indies in front of a full house at the SCG, drove Roger Harper straight back down the ground for four to send a nation into delirium. It was one of those moments in time that almost every male Australian of my generation can instantly recall with perfect clarity — not just the moment itself, but where they were when they saw it; a “moment … so iconic that that [it was] replayed endlessly in cricket ads for the better part of the following decade.” That match was played on New Year’s Day, 1996. Over the intervening 17 years, interest in and crowds at one-dayers have declined gradually yet severely, but such was the joy at the parallel rejuvenation of Test cricket, that this decline was barely remarked upon until one day, we were confronted with the sight of Basement Jaxx and the Madden brothers from Good Charlotte being cast as extras in the home one-day summer in a futile attempt to entice people back to half-empty grounds by manufacturing a false atmosphere of excitement.

This revolution may have been silent, but it was also rational. The Australian people know their cricket. They came to realise that they didn’t particularly fancy watching Australia, literally, walk four runs an over between overs 10 and 40 in a one-dayer against a phalanx of dibbly-dobbly medium pacers with a ring of men on the boundary, when they could watch Australia steamroll four plus an over in a full-blooded Test match against a snarling opponent unrestrained by the legal artifice of fielding restrictions and over limitations. The former sight is a Certified Practicing Accountant’s vision of international sport: predictable, certain, safe and heavily regulated. The latter sight is sport as God intended it to be — fearless enterprise earning the probability of glorious victory, without ever eliminating the Damoclean possibility of gut-wrenching (but no less glorious) defeat: see, for example, India 2001.

The second root cause of one-dayers’ decline is the rise of T20s. In their mid-’90s heyday, day-nighters performed their very specific function — providing international cricket at night, outside working hours, to the public — in a satisfactory fashion. However, if we had stopped to think about it, we would have realised that day-nighters’ performance of that function remained far from efficient. The matches generally began at around 2:20pm and, if they went the distance, finished past 10pm. People generally finished work sometime between 5pm and 6pm. So, the sizable proportion of fans coming to the game after work got to enjoy, at most, half the match that they paid for. And not always a full or enjoyable half at that: for example, if the team bowling first dismissed the team batting first for a low total in less than 50 overs, then by the time a spectator got to the ground after work, the team batting second might already be strolling to an easy win having knocked off the bulk of the small target in the first 10 overs when the field was in.

T20s exterminate this gross inefficiency. The games begin at around 7:35pm. So, if you’re coming down after work and forking out your hard earned to watch the game, you get to enjoy the whole game. The 60 overs eliminated from one-dayers to achieve this efficiency gain are pure flab — the overs between 10 and 40 of a one-dayer when the field’s back and the batting side, having already had a dash in the first 10 when the field was in, is jogging four singles an over and hoarding its wickets in anticipation of a final flourish in the last 10 overs.

The Australian people know their cricket. They’ve quickly cottoned onto the fact that T20s perform the same function that one-dayers used to perform, but in a more efficient and timely fashion. We still have a deep thirst for night-time international cricket played after we’ve finished work — we’ve just found a more efficient way to quench that thirst. The “truth” that the Australian people saw so clearly on the night of Tuesday 28 November 1978 remains the same as ever — they’ve simply discovered a better, more timely way to experience that truth.

One-dayers are dying. Now we know why.

As far as back as 1991, Dean Jones had, in a remarkably prescient passage, foretold what would happen if one-dayers failed to evolve:

the real point about continually re-assessing the state of the limited-overs game is that we must ensure that it doesn’t become totally predictable, too calculated and therefore too boring.[8]

The evolutionary changes proposed by Jones — reducing the number of fielders outside the circle, being more “flexible on … bouncers”, and introducing “the Inter-change, a South African idea”[9] — are still relevant to one-day internationals today. Iterations of the former two changes have recently been implemented in one-day internationals — the number of bouncers permitted per over was increased from one to two and the number of fielders permitted outside the circle in non-powerplay overs was reduced from five to four — and the introduction of a substitutes’ bench, for Test cricket even, is being actively discussed.

Since the mid-2000s, the ICC has tried and abandoned a whole gamut of rule changes for one-day internationals — anyone remember the “super-sub”? — without any real success. This constant tinkering arguably constitutes a tacit admission on the part of the ICC that something is wrong with one-day internationals in their present form.

Mike Atherton certainly thinks so — he believes that one-day internationals ought to be abandoned entirely. Adam Gilchrist reckons that they’ll be “history” after the 2015 World Cup. The ICC seems to believe that they can be saved with more minor rule tinkering. Shane Warne believes that the solution is de-regulation: “No restrictions with the field, none, place the fielders anywhere you want, this will create so many options and the attacking captains and teams will win.  The only law should be that no bowler can bowl more than 10 overs.

I believe that, like the once great city of Gotham, one-dayers can be saved — no, not by incremental rule changes, de-regulation or an orphaned billionaire turned caped vigilante, but by a full-blown revolution.

Warne is on the right track but, in this instance, he hasn’t gone far enough.

One-dayers should be liberated from all artificial constraints upon competition, including even the 50-over limit allotted to each side. No fielding restrictions. No over limits for teams. No over limits for individual bowlers. Broadly, the only rules should be: a maximum of one innings per team and each team gets one new ball when they bowl. Three possible results: win, lose or draw. Simple.

The only substantive restraint placed on the combatants in the field of play would be time, just like in a Test match. As it should be. Indeed, before the introduction of the standardised 30 hour Test match format in the mid-1940s, Australia declined to impose even the one restraint of time upon her Test cricketers — for example, during the 5-0 home Ashes series whitewash of 1920–21, the Test matches were timeless. By contrast, England preferred the protection of a three day time limit on Test matches played in the mother country. Read into that what you will. In any event, England’s chosen temporal limitation didn’t stop them getting slaughtered 3-0 in the return 1921 Ashes series in England.

For the newly liberated modern one-day game, we can set the time limit at approximately 8 hours, excluding the 10 minutes permitted for the change of innings. So, for a day-nighter, start at 2:20pm and finish at 10:30pm.

Of course, in this new Millsian cricketing world, it would be entirely up to the captains to set a sporting declaration that allows the possibility of a result. The big criticism which can be levelled at this time-based one-dayers proposal is that it creates the risk of a succession of boring draws which would drive even more fans away from the already terminally ill one-day game.

But the evidence available — both empirical and anecdotal — suggests otherwise. Time-based one-dayers have long been successfully played by amateur clubs on Sundays in England and eight year old schoolboys in Zimbabwe. As Graeme Hick explained, as an eight year old schoolboy in Zimbabwe he played “afternoon matches that would start about midday or 1 o’clock and the batting team would set a total and then declare.” That’s not something that we’re used to in Australia — junior cricketers tend to either play one-day games limited by overs, or multi-day games limited by time.

I didn’t encounter one-day games limited by time until I moved to England in early 2009 and joined an amateur cricket club which played on Sundays. I rocked up one afternoon for a game and was informed by my portly, twirly-moustached English skipper, “we’re playing a time game today.” He might as well have been speaking Etruscan. I simply could not comprehend what he was saying. Even after he patiently explained the concept to me, I retained a certain degree of Antipodean scepticism, wondering whether there was any incentive at all for a captain to set a sporting declaration. My scepticism only deepened when the opposition won the toss and chose to bat on a rock-hard pitch, baked to the point of gloss, under the bluest of August skies.

We couldn’t bowl the opposition out. They cruised to a total in the mid-200s and then, to my pleasant surprise, declared, giving themselves about four hours and 40 overs to bowl us out. The odds were still in their favour, but it was a sporting declaration which give us an incentive to go for the win. That being said, scoring at more than a run a ball is never easy for a bunch of Sunday amateurs and when we slumped to 5 for 90-odd after not many overs, it looked like the best that we could hope for was a draw. Indeed, our captain had installed a cunning back-up plan for use in the event of just such a chase-induced batting collapse — he’d dropped a technically solid, straight-batted opener (me) down to number seven because in his words: “it’s not possible for them to get you out on a pitch like this. If we collapse going for the win, you can come in, play your natural game and ensure that we at least get a draw.”

So in I walked with no intention other than to play my natural game and each ball on its merits. At the back of my mind, I knew that we still had plenty of time left, the pitch was hard and true, and the outfield was as quick as a Xander Harris quip. It turned out to be one of those days where everything goes your way. My batting partner, an athletic, big-hitting Pakistani with a history of fence-clearing and low scores, got smashed on the toe early on with a yorker. His minor toe injury turned out to be a technical blessing in disguise as it forced him to just stay still and balanced at the crease. The result: he began walloping the ball Sehwag-Trescothick style and looking like the kind of batsman who a Navy Seal Team couldn’t extract from the crease. Meanwhile, at the other end, all I had to do was to work the ball around to give him the strike and hit the rubbish balls for four. In the end, we won with a good 15 minutes to spare as he finished with an unbeaten hundred and I finished with an unbeaten 40-odd, having efficiently spent most of my time out in the middle running between the wickets or at the non-striker’s end.

So, in my personal experience, one-day games limited by time do work. But if, as is probably the case, that’s not enough for you, consider this: one-day games limited by time were good enough to develop the man regarded by Steve Waugh as “as good as any 18-year-old has ever been in the history of cricket”[10] and the man widely regarded as the finest cricket coach in the world at present.

Moreover, there is the most persuasive empirical evidence of all in favour of one-day games limited only by time — the 136 year history of Test cricket itself. Whether it be five days or three days, Test cricket has proven that, by and large, games limited only by time work just fine. Why would it be any different when the time limit’s one day rather than three or five?

At the end of the day, cricketers — whether they be schoolboys in Zimbabwe or professionals playing for their country — want to win every game of cricket that they play. I prefer to place my hopes for the future of one-day international cricket in cricketers, rather than cricket administrators.

Imagine the infinite vista of strategic possibilities opened up by one-day games limited only by time. On a good batting deck, an enterprising captain like Michael Clarke may choose an extra batsman in the hope of winning the toss and batting first so that his top order stacked with fast scorers can quickly rack up a big total, thereby allowing him to declare early and then back his three best specialist bowlers, unrestrained by individual over limits, and two all-rounders, to get the 10 wickets needed for victory. And don’t forget the added complication of the dew which can form on the outfield grass and get picked up by the rolling ball at night during day-nighters.

As for rain delays, forget the capricious calculus of Duckworth-Lewis, just leave it to the two captains to make a competitive game of whatever time’s left. In one-day tournaments involving more than two teams, we can incentivise results: three points for a win, zero points for a defeat and zero points for a draw.

The rationale behind my one-day game limited by time proposal is to allow one-dayers to perform a new different function, because no amount of tinkering will enable them to perform their old function as efficiently as T20s do now. Liberated from the yoke and tyranny of the artificial rule constraints imposed by administrators, one-dayers can present themselves to the people as an entirely new “truth” — one-day, day-night Tests.

Live Free Or Die”, wrote General John Stark, a hero of the American Revolutionary War, on 31 July 1809 to his wartime comrades. Today, the same could be said of one-dayers. One revolution, which happened on the cricket fields of Australia, gave birth to one-day international cricket as we know it. Now, another is required to save it.

Note: This post was amended on 11 February 2013 to add the phrase “by manufacturing a false atmosphere of excitement”, and footnotes 8 and 9. 

[1] Gideon Haigh, The Cricket War (1993) 113.

[2] Ibid 126–7.

[3] Ibid 225.

[4] Dean Jones et al, Dean Jones: One-Day Magic (1991) 52.

[5] Ibid 42.

[6] Ibid 47–8.

[7] WG Grace, Cricket Reminiscences and Personal Recollections (1899), quoted in Gideon Haigh, Silent Revolutions: Writings on Cricket History (2007) x.

[8] Dean Jones et al, Dean Jones: One-Day Magic (1991) 59.

[9] Ibid 57.

[10] Steve Waugh, Out of My Comfort Zone: The Autobiography (2005) 49.