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One-day cricket, limited appeal

The Age senior sports columnist Greg BaumBy Greg Baum

The trouble with one-day cricket now is that it is neither one thing nor the other.

Even the traditional appellation is problematic.

It can't be ''one-day'' because now there is another single-day form of the game. It can't be ''limited overs'' because both one-day formats are limited by overs.

It can't even be ''50-over cricket'' because in a prototype being trialled in Australia this summer, it is 45 overs a side.

The marketing people will go to work: what's the betting on ''classic cricket''?

Fifty-over cricket was invigorating in the beginning, when no-one really knew what they were doing and all bowled like men possessed, and hit out lustily for distant boundaries.

Inevitably, safety first intervened, as it does in all sports, and it became a game of tippity run. Boundary ropes, bludgeons of bats and some tinkering with rules inspired a second heyday, when scores of 300 or more were commonplace.

Then Twenty20 emerged, a game that cut out the tedium of the middle 30 overs, and was immediately and wildly popular. Fifty-over cricket lost its mojo.

Authorities had two choices. One was to scrap 50-over cricket. But that would have been to admit that it wasn't much of a game in the first instance, and besides, there were all those lucrative televised hours to fill up.

Instead, authorities began to talk ingenuously of how cricket was unique in that it had three different configurations, and meantime to look for ways to spice up the 50-over orphan. They began to try to develop a hybrid.

So in this summer's test tube is a form that divides the game into four innings. Each team bats for 20 overs in the first innings and 25 in the second, resuming where it left off in the first. A first innings lead earns one point, victory at the end of 45 overs four more. In this, intriguingly, it more closely mimics the shape of Test cricket.

Each side has 12 players, but only 11 at a time. But a proposal to introduce a ''super striker'', who bats but does not bowl or field, was rejected. Power plays have been abolished, blessedly. They encumbered the game more than they added to it, and in any case should never have been at the discretion of the batting side.

Bowlers are allowed up to 12 overs each, but otherwise are still the typecast fall guys. Fielding restrictions have been tightened, with no more than four allowed outside the circle at any stage.

It is too soon by far to declare the experiment either a success or failure. Early returns suggest that teams struggle to know whether they are behind or ahead, and that the last three overs of the first ''innings'' are for preservation. Understanding will evolve, and with it, tactics. This is not necessarily a good thing, since tactics in all sports tend to the defensive.

To counter this, old rules will be adapted and new rules introduced. Former Test cricket and self-styled ''bowlologist'' Damien Fleming would, for instance, give each team the option of ''declaring'' at a strategic moment between the 16th and 24th overs, early perhaps to rule off a bad start, later to consolidate a good one.

Former first-class cricketer, author and photographer Mark Ray used to advocate that as many gimmicks as imaginable be introduced to fifty-over cricket, to avoid fatuous comparisons with the incomparably better orginal, Test cricket. That pretty much became the history of 50-over cricket. But it was not enough. The game always lacked the gravitas of Test cricket. Now it has been made to look ponderous beside Twenty20.

In trying to reinvigorate 50-over cricket, authorities are demonstrating why they will probably fail.

The world's biggest and best-loved games don't change much. Soccer amended its back pass rule. Tennis introduced the tie-breaker. Golf pretty much left well alone. The technology/equipment debate aside, Test cricket has varied itself only by changing from back-foot no-ball rule to front-foot, and by imposing a limit on bouncers. It remains a pure game.

The need constantly to reinvent 50-over cricket suggests a lack of substance. The new format appeals now, but perhaps only because of novelty value, which will soon wear off. How far do we go?

Since it is now divided into multiple innings, and as the full toss is now something of a stock ball, and as no-one is especially fussy about bowling actions any more, and more than one ball is in use at any one time, and as a designated hitter is still on the cards, can it be long before it has morphed fully into baseball?

Greg Baum is a senior sports columnist at The Age newspaper.