Australia are 4-0 up in the one-day series against England, with three pointless matches to go. One out of four matches in the Compaq Cup in Sri Lanka was pointless since the teams had entered the final already. And we wonder why the 50-over format is struggling to survive. These are just two of the latest examples.
The cynic has suggested that in Sri Lanka, at least, there is little point in actually playing the matches since the results are biased in favour of the team winning the toss in a day-night game. The captain losing the toss might as well concede the match graciously, and the pre-match television inanities (“Our aim is to win”) can segue into the post-match inanities (“Our bowlers bowled in the right areas”) with a short break in-between (at least in the subcontinent) for local officials, marketing geniuses and political wannabes to line up for the presentation.
The two most important suggestions in recent years to reduce the importance of the toss has been the split game (revived recently by Sachin Tendulkar), where teams play 25 overs apiece alternately, and giving the captain losing the toss the option of changing his eleven after the toss has been made. He thus gets to pick an extra batsman or a different type of bowler knowing that his team will be chasing. When the toss becomes so vital, it makes sense to hand over an equalizer to the captain who calls wrongly.
What is affecting the 50-over game is not so much the format itself as the number of pointless games over a series. To reduce the number of overs to 40, a suggestion many ex-players have endorsed, would be to alter the essence of the game. To reduce the number of matches played by eliminating those that have no bearing on the final result is, theoretically at least, the better solution.
In practice, there would be two hurdles. Television commitments and the commitment to a venue. But that could be tweaked too. A series is sold as a package now, and to divide the rights for the four-match Compaq Cup or the seven-match Anglo-Australian series depending on matches actually played might take some selling to television honchos.
In fact, we might be addressing the problem from the wrong perspective. It is not the format that needs fixing but how television covers the sport. For example, if television refuses to cover pointless matches, the cricket authorities would soon find ways and means of getting rid of them.
Sure, over a longer tournament like the World Cup or the Champions Trophy, there will be matches that have no impact on the final outcome, and the practical approach would be to reduce them since eliminating them altogether might be both impossible and cruel.
But surely in a bilateral series, a 4-0 lead is comprehensive enough to decide the better team? After such a start, there are the questions of motivation and fitness to contend with. And at the end of a long tour, why should the winning team be penalised by forcing them to extend their stay abroad?
In the 1990s when the match-fixing scandal hit the headlines, one of the reasons for its spread was said to be the many pointless matches in pointless tournaments. Since human nature is the same, the temptation to win alternate matches to keep a series alive might be just as strong. But the ICC has sensible rules in place now, and if the format inspires such corruption, then it might be a good idea to do away with it altogether anyway.