Forty years to the day (January 5, 1971) from the birth of One-Day Internationals, obituaries are being prepared for the 50-over game that revitalized world cricket in the 70s and helped keep it afloat financially.
The format has evolved over the years with constant innovations being introduced to try to keep it fresh.
Twenty years ago it was traditional five-day Test cricket that was being written off, a victim of the surge in popularity of ODIs. The first three World Cups in England (1975, ‘79 and ‘83) were of 60-overs duration.
But today, to the delight of cricket connoisseurs around the world, Test cricket (which was born in 1877) is going through a revival while the new kid on the block, Twenty-20 looks likely to sound the death-knell of ODIs (50 overs).
Of course with the next ODI World Cup round the corner in the sub-continent, a vintage tournament could give the 50-over game a shot in the arm. But at the end of the day the international cricket calendar is just too packed to balance all three formats, particularly with the glitzy Indian Premier League and its offshoot, the Champions League increasingly grabbing time and attention.
The International Cricket Council insists all is hale and hearty and 12 months is enough to pack in international cricket on an almost daily basis. The players though might just walk away, content with the lasting fame Test cricket brings them and the fortune from the IPL and other franchise-based T-20 domestic leagues which are mushrooming all over the globe.
Famed Anglo-Australian historian and author David Frith has seen it all in five decades of writing and reporting on cricket around the world. Says Frith: “We now know that 50-overs and 20-overs cricket is the money-maker. But while T-20 now threatens the longer version (50), Test cricket remains the paramount draw-card. Our fears of 10 or 20 years ago have proved groundless, thank goodness. The majority of cricket-lovers continue to recognize this as the supreme form of the game. In a world that suffers a widespread shortage of concentration span, fortunately there are still enough people who appreciate the true depth of Test match cricket.”
With the Indian market widely recognized as the commercial engine that drives world cricket, it is the link between 1983 and 2007 that accounts for the rapid growth in first ODIs and then T-20s.
Any Indian cricket fan will instantly recall the significance of those two years.
India under Kapil Dev stunned the cricket world when they lifted the 1983 Prudential World Cup, beating the mighty West Indies at Lord’s.
That legendary game had been the 223rd in ODI history since 1971. But just three had been staged on Indian soil till then as the Board of Control for Cricket in India saw ODIs as a threat to Test cricket which was their big money.
The number of ODIs staged in the next 12 years till 1995 now surged to 779, a nearly four-fold increase (the total currently stands at 3,078) with the Indian team leading the way. The BCCI had by now woken up to the format’s financial potential.
With Pakistan having joined India as World Cup winners in 1992 and Sri Lanka in 1996, the Asian triumvirate was complete and the craze showed no signs of abating.
With India’s very own Jagmohan Dalmiya at the head of the ICC, it was only the number of days in the year that could seemingly curtail the authorities from packing in more and more ODIs at different corners of the globe.
Sheikh Abdul Rahman Bukhatir and his trusted lieutenant, the former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal were behind the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series launched in the early 80s in Sharjah, UAE which would become the first venue to stage 100 ODIs. This time unlike with Packer’s WSC, the ICC sensibly decided to hitch its wagon to the CBFS.
Bukhatir cashed in on the craze for India/Pakistan encounters with the vast bank of spectators drawn from the expat population of those two nations settled in the Gulf. The bubble burst in 2001 when the Indian government stepped in to impose a ban with the spectre of the underworld and match fixing casting its shadow on the tournaments.
The man who really gave ODIs a complete makeover though was Australian TV magnate Kerry Packer whose breakaway World Series Cricket which ran from 1977 to 1979 and shook up the traditionalists like nothing before with its introduction of the white ball, coloured clothing and floodlit cricket, all of which today have become part and parcel of limited overs cricket.
So to 2007 and the inaugural T-20 World Cup in South Africa won most unexpectedly by MS Dhoni-led India.
Unexpected not only because India had played just one T-20 International prior to the tournament and were the last major nation to do so, but because the BCCI had to be dragged kicking and screaming into competing at all in the World Cup, fearful that T-20s would eat into the ODI financial pie. Cricket history sure has an uncanny knack of repeating itself!
That triumph would spawn the mega-bucks of the IPL which briefly threatened to gobble up world cricket before the BCCI stepped in and sacked the so-called IPL czar, Lalit Modi for his alleged excesses.
Limited overs cricket brought a new dynamism to all formats of cricket with its positive strokeplay and enhanced standards of fielding. Bowlers though were increasingly reduced to cannon fodder and that trend has sadly been accentuated by the 20/20 format.
Whether 50/50 cricket will survive to see its golden jubilee is highly doubtful. But its legacy will live on as long as cricket is played and loved by millions.