lIf you had listened closely, you might have heard the answer to an age-old riddle in Melbourne, where Australia ended their whitewash of England in the one-day international series Contractual Obligation on Tuesday. They won the third game by 221 points, the biggest ODI defeat in England’s history. A record, and not the only one in the game. There were 10,406 paying spectators in the ground, the smallest recorded crowd for a one-day match in Australia at the MCG.
It turns out a team falls over when no one is around to hear it still make a noise and it’s kind of like Jos Buttler’s sentimental post-game interview. “I’m not at all fussed about the results, to be honest,” he said.
The old joke is that the English, who are not a spiritual people, invented cricket to give themselves an idea of eternity. Buttler looked and sounded like a man sentenced to spend a thousand years in purgatory. He could easily have tried to hide his contempt for the game, but he seemed too tired to conjure up the usual platitudes. “The landscape of cricket has changed dramatically in recent years, we are in a different time,” he said. “A lot of people talk about how to keep bilateral cricket relevant and this is a good example of what not to do.”
A decade ago, International Cricket Council CEO Haroon Lorgat said directors had created a “vicious cycle” by spending so much time talking about the crisis in 50-over cricket that even then it struggled to stay relevant while Twenty20 grew in popularity. “It reminded me of a British jeweler who declared his merchandise to be rubbish. He just talked himself out of business,” he said.
“We threatened to do the same with our beloved 50-over cricket. The more we talked about a game in crisis, the more we created the crisis and the more we talked about doom and despondency. And all the while there was no real evidence of a crisis.”
If the evidence wasn’t there then, the sound of the English captain being interviewed about the futility of this series he had just completed suggests it might be there now. The three games were supposed to be part of the build-up to next year’s 50-over World Cup, but were postponed for six months and tacked onto the back of the T20 World Cup that England have just won. They were played because they were promised to the broadcasters.
England was in the unprecedented situation where Australia actually felt sorry for them. “We’re happy as a team, it’s been fantastic,” said David Warner, who won player of the series after batting down 208 runs in three innings, “but it’s been a long few months for the England team and once you “I’ve been so in a daze it’s kind of hard to get up sometimes. I know you play international cricket, but it’s one of those things where you ride that wave of emotions.”
While Buttler was wrapping up, another England team was gearing up for a warm-up match for their Test tour of Pakistan, 8,000 miles away in the United Arab Emirates, the kind of split-tour arrangement that is becoming a hallmark of international cricket. It will happen again next spring, when England have to finish a test in New Zealand the day before they start a one-day series in Bangladesh.
“I feel a little bit for the players who are young and coming into the game,” Buttler said. “They want to be able to play all formats and the schedule doesn’t give you that chance at the moment.” Most of the elderly have already given up on the idea.
Part of this congestion is due to the decisions to halt tours of South Africa, Bangladesh and Pakistan at various times during the pandemic; partly the result of the players’ desire to ensure they would be available for the Indian Premier League; part of it is the desire of the England and Wales Cricket Board to ensure they are available to the Hundred.
But more of it is due to inveterate greed and the ICC’s decision to host a major global event every year for eight years between 2024 and 2031, be it a T20 World Cup, a World Cup or the Champions Trophy (an event that absolutely refuses to die no matter how many times they try to kill it).
Buttler doesn’t like this much either. “The ICC tournaments should be a bit more spread out, it would give you more time to prepare and it would make them a bit more special if they’re there too.”
In return, the ICC agreed to scrap its nascent one-day Super League to allow member states to have more control over their own schedules between ICC commitments. Launched only in 2020, Super League was designed “to raise the stakes of bilateral 50-over games” by eliminating dead rubbers. Like the one England just lost in Melbourne.
England will play the 50-over World Cup in India next winter. It will undoubtedly be a great tournament, a boost to the one-day format. But if they make it to the final on November 26, they can celebrate by going to the West Indies a week later for three more ODIs and five T20s.
In short, the same thing, or something very similar, will happen again in 12 months. “Take care of it,” Buttler told authorities on Tuesday. “Find a way to keep it all relevant.” Little chance.