The White Ball Syndrome

My Last ODI - Did Anyone Care?
My Last ODI – Did Anyone Care? – A Dmitri Old Picture

Following on from yesterday’s piece on the Strauss interviews, I thought I’d do a little bit on the other issues that surround the game in this country. The chief of which is the curious case of mismatch of interest.

All through the World Cup there were people on the Twitter feed saying that they really didn’t care about how England did, because, in their words, we’ve always been useless at this sort of thing.  Yet, whenever there is an ODI match in the UK, in the main (not always, I know) these are really well attended. People do like watching them, but at the end of the day, do they care? And it is that care that makes the task of Strauss very, very tough indeed. There are going to be no campaigns to sack a one day captain – and as I write that I recall Alastair Cook, but let’s treat that as a special case – and one day form is seen as being somehow inferior to being in test form. Whereas the rules of test cricket have not changed hugely, barely a year goes by without some tinkering with field placements, powerplays and, of course, the hugely lamented supersub is inflicted on ODIs. The format itself seems insecure.

We seem alone in caring so much about test cricket, but are we really? Are we equating attendance at a fixture with the amount the people care about it? After all, T20 matches are ten-a-penny, but are well attended, but are you as awfully upset if your team loses one of them, as you would be if your team lost a key longer-form game?

Test cricket does not have a world championship, so the idea of who is the best is determined on a rolling basis, which people find incredibly hard to understand how it works. At the moment the world ranked number 1 team is South Africa, who are being given a bit of a beating in India. England were number 1 for a year, in which their first series as top of the tree brought about a 3-0 defeat in the UAE. We are now ranked number 6. Whenever the reign of Strauss and Flower is brought up. being number 1 test side in the world follows. But at the same time, England were ranked number 1 in the world at ODIs too, and that’s never mentioned at all. We reached the final of the Champions Trophy, and choked in a T20 final masquerading as an ODI, and yet that’s dismissed. No-one placed any value on it.

Because, let’s face it, in ODI cricket all that counts is the World Cup. It’s the importance of that once in four years championship that conquers all. The main reason, one could call it a priority reason, Strauss gives a stuff about white ball cricket, if you ask me, is that we are at home in 2019 (and the CT in 2017) and failure there would make him (and not the suits above him) a laughing stock. It’s why the next world event, the World T20, is barely given a passing mention. It’s in India, we don’t play well there, so who cares?

Can you make people care?

The grave danger is that you might not be able to. Caring is about losing, not about winning. Everyone feels nice when their team wins, but caring is about how you feel when they lose. I’m a Brian Lara fan, so when Warner was 244 not out after one day, and playing like a God, and he’s a player I’m not that fond of, I would care immensely if he lost the record to him. If it were Hayden’s 380, I’d be willing Warner on, but only to make 381. I’d care because I loved Lara. Now, as you know, what the ECB have done over the past 18 months meant that I have ceased to care about how England perform, so that on many occasions, my sense of misery after they lost has diminished. Getting that caring back is much harder than losing it.

But even during my peak times of fandom, did losing hurt that much? In tests, oh yes. If asked what was my lowest moment in sport while I was at the venue, it probably would have to be Stern John’s goal in the Play-Off Semi in 2002. I gave enormous amounts of time and money to my club, knew that goal would likely mean the break-up over time of that squad, and we lost our shot at the Premier League. But running it close was the Adelaide test of 2006. While some make light of it with their “it never existed” meme, the agony over six hours of watching that demise is still immensely painful. There are pieces to be written about it still, but it was shattering.

He never bloody hit this, Bucknor
He never bloody hit this, Bucknor – A Dmitri Old Picture….

I have been to a few, not many, ODIs, and the most memorable, if you will, was the England v New Zealand game at The Oval in 2007. This was the Elliott/Sidebottom game, when Collingwood upheld an appeal, but New Zealand somehow won by one wicket in the last over. It was an exciting game, it was won off the last ball, I believe, and yet….. I’ve never been back to an ODI. Both Sir Peter and I were of the same mind. It was a great game, but it never mattered. It’s almost fandom-lite. You can watch a spectacle, admire it’s good parts, tut-tut at the bad, but you never gave a stuff. Not really.

This is where the fandom gets personal. I watched the Ashes series this summer with a bit more detachment, and thus found it hard to fathom why fans were going so mad over two wins on green tops (I think the Cardiff wicket was fine for both teams, actually, and was a superb win by England). I would have been more delighted if we’d won in UAE as that would take some doing, just as India in 2012, Australia (for all their faults) in 2010-11 and the wins in Pakistan and Sri Lanka 2000-01. And yes, Australia at home in 2005 with that team, which, remember, one tweeter memorably said he’s wished had never happened! All supporters are different.

Care does need to be taken, because ODIs are too frequent, too many played with not enough riding on them, quite often without main stars who are rested. If authorities treat them like this, then why should anyone care? While people go on about tests lacking context, the only context that seems to matter on ODIs is how often can we put them on while keeping grounds nice and full. When you have a billion people across India, with ODI grounds a plenty, that special occasion might be a local thing. In England, the ten or so we put on a year are often tucked on to test series, and seen as the dying embers of a tour.

I come from an era when the county final on the first weekend of September was a massive occasion. Then, when people pointed out that bowling first nearly always won you the game, people found holes in it. The glamour of the occasion died. It’s now a sad, pale imitation of what it once was. Yet that is the format of the game that gets the crowds in at international level! It was failing well before the T20 era, before anyone lays the blame firmly at that door.

It’s not just cricket. Millwall, my team, got to the FA Cup Final in 2004. For a fan like me, the win at Old Trafford against Sunderland was a highlight of my supporting life. Never has 45 minutes passed so slowly. We were well beaten in the final, and as we got our buses back to the car parks in Cardiff, a load, and I mean many, Manchester United fans walked past us, almost solemn, almost disinterested. I said to them “cheer up, chaps, you won the FA Cup!” because people of my age saw this as a highlight of any season. One snapped back “We’re supposed to win this sort of competition”. Clearly, in Arsenal’s invincible season, winning the Cup wasn’t enough. It didn’t matter to them. In one instant, the new football was laid bare. I’d denied it was really true, denied it when I went to cup ties and the attendance was shocking, denied it when clubs played reserve teams, but it was true. Something I cared about, didn’t matter. I’ve scarcely cared about the Cup since (I do believe Manchester United have never won the Cup since).

So, to get back to cricket and the ODI priority. Strauss has seen 50 over cricket’s importance diminish over the last 15-20 years, so there’s no domestic base to give a stuff. T20 matters a little, but does it really? You’ve got 14 games a year to play of that. At international level, the series have on context, with players often rested due to crazy schedules. The competition only seems to matter when there are a mass of teams on your shores battling it out, and even then you constrain who can play there. Why make such a fuss over something we don’t seem to give a fuss about? Why prioritise something that the people who watch may never think is a priority? Good luck Andrew.

What do you lot think?