ODI format faces the ultimate challenge

If anything is constant in this modern era, it is the need for continuous adjustments to fit the ever-changing landscape of the sport. Of late, a discernible urge for change in the cricketing world could be sensed with the 50-over format of the game set to take the brunt of the transformation.

When England's Ben Stokes, one of the finest all-rounders of the game, shockingly announced his retirement from ODIs last month, citing that it is 'unsustainable' to play all three formats and manage the workload through an already crammed up cricketing calendar, a serious debate over the existence of ODI cricket came to the forefront.

Legendary pacer Wasim Akram was the first to react, and his opinion regarding the matter has been the most blatant of all. Coming from the second-highest leading wicket-taker of all time in ODIs that the format has become a 'run-of-the-mill' and needs to be 'scrapped permanently', the possibility of the 50-over format heading towards an existential crisis had gathered serious momentum.

This [ODI] is one format that everybody loves watching. If you look at the biggest events [in sports], T20 World Cup is not one of the biggest events; it's the ODI World Cup which is one of the biggest events. For me, it's a very important format.

— Bangladesh ODI skipper Tamim Iqbal

But, of the three recognised formats of the game -- Tests, T20Is and ODIs -- why is ODI being targeted to make room for the two other formats? The answer could be found when the commercial benefits for players, the prime stakeholders of the game, are taken into consideration.

While the undeniable role of Test cricket in recognising the potential of a cricketer had experts hold the format in high regard for decades, the commercial benefit for players and every other stakeholder involved is mostly being catered by T20Is, more specifically, the franchise-based T20 leagues around the globe. And in that regard, it is indisputable that T20Is have been the most lucrative of all formats, given the endorsements, media involvement and money involved.

As for the ODIs, it is still exciting as long as they are scoring runs. Interesting to see the future of ODIs] and see where it goes. They have got to keep making it [ODIs] exciting. They have got a few challenges.

— Australian fast bowling great Glenn McGrath

The power of commercial benefits to make significant alterations in the game's blueprint in time could be gauged from Cricket South Africa's (CSA) decision to drop out from the three-match bilateral ODI series in Australia, scheduled for next January, in order to ensure full participation of their key cricketers for their inaugural T20 franchise league, also scheduled to kick-off at the start of 2023.  

With South Africa lingering at 11 with just four wins from 13 games in the ODI Super League table, the decision heavily risked their team's qualification for the upcoming 2023 ODI World Cup in India. However, CSA's decision only implies the charm of ODI cricket is not where it once used to be.  

The 50-over format is the first thing that needs a look-in. As I had suggested, the format needs a tweak of two innings of 25 overs per side with a 15-minute break between each innings [a total of four innings between two teams]. The number of innovations that can be brought in are huge.

— Sachin Tendulkar suggested back in 2019

Given the short span of time in which the athletes are able to yield maximum earnings in their career, it is understandable that financial gains will be the driving force in their decision-making process. In this case, the latest example is that of David Warner's. Warner, in fact, finds himself in a position of power with Cricket Australia (CA) reportedly lining up a lucrative contract worth over $500,000 to persuade him to play the Big Bash League (BBL) after the star opener opted for IPL-backed UAE league instead of BBL.

Looking back in time, ODI cricket, as we know it today, actually came into being as the sport's governing body realised the need for a revolution in the game in order to reach a wider array of fans.  

In fact, the first-ever ODI game actually started off as a Test match between Australia and England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in January 1971. With rain withholding play for three days, the two sides came in agreement to play a 40-overs-a-side game, with eight balls an over, thus commencing the journey of ODIs.

From there on, the ODI format went through further changes over the years, the most radical of all facilitated by Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer as the concept of coloured clothes, white balls, floodlights, and dark sight screens were incorporated into the format only after being inspired by Packer's World Series of Cricket, a tournament that only ran for 17 months but ended up revolutionising the game forever.    

Hence, from playing the first Men's ODI World Cup in 1975, in plain whites and with games constituting 60-overs-a-side, to playing 50-over formats in bilateral series and World Cups in the modern era -- even the ODI format went through significant changes to become one of the most played formats since its inception but it seems to have become the victim of its own success.

Even though the International Cricket Council (ICC) has played down the threat to ODIs despite the increasing pressure from all quarters, there is no denying that the ODI format needs a revamp to fit with time. While the changes should to address the needs of the hour -- a spark in the spectator interest, meeting the revenue demands of the broadcasters, organisers and, most importantly, increasing the quality of the game -- the real challenge is to proceed sensibly, keeping in mind the history and legacy of the format and its contribution in making cricket what it is today.

And suggestions have flowed from cricketers and experts alike, from reducing the game to 40-overs-a-side or even playing the matches by dividing into four innings of 25 overs each, as suggested by one of the greats of the game, Sachin Tendulkar, back in 2019.  

 As things stand, it seems alteration to the 50-over game is inevitable, if not imminent. And that means the biggest challenge will be for the players, who would need to adjust their playing methods and rejig their career path in accordance with whatever changes the format goes through. And if a player decides to step aside from any one format, as Stokes did, that will be understandable too.
Challenges will also be there for teams like Bangladesh, who are still struggling to find their footing in T20s and Tests. And with ODIs being the Tigers' most preferred format, the onus will be on the operating body, the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) in Bangladesh's case, to adhere to the modern requirements to stay afloat.


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