The ongoing Champions Trophy is the seventh and last edition of this tournament, which initially started off in 1998 as a promising knock-out competition to help raise funds for the global development of cricket, but ultimately became a liability in the cricket calendar. Usually held every two years, the 2013 edition is instead being played after almost four years, the last being in 2009. With the rise in meaningless yet lucrative Twenty20 leagues throughout the world, the ICC decided that something has to go, and the scapegoat turned out to be the Champions Trophy, probably rightly so.
The time is ripe for a meaningful One-day International league. The World Cup remains the primary 50-overs tournament, and continues to do just fine. What is harming the format is the unnecessarily high number of bilateral series being played around the world. It might be bringing in the crowds, but from a cricketing point of view, there is no meaning attached to such contests except for a few rating points on the rankings table. In the 2013-14 season, Australia will tour India for a mind numbing seven ODI’s in November, while India themselves will visit South Africa in December for the same number of ODI matches. Prior to these series, there will be played in the Caribbean a tri-nation ODI series involving the hosts plus India and Sri Lanka, which was disappointingly accommodated after scrapping a two-Test series between West Indies and Sri Lanka. Similarly, two more potentially mouth watering Test series this season (Pakistan in West Indies and South Africa in Sri Lanka) were scrapped, while the limited-overs legs were kept as per schedule.
In one of my earlier posts I was of the opinion that the 2019 World Cup was the last we should see of ODI cricket. But then I realised that without the 50-overs format, the progress of promising Associate nations would be thwarted, for it is this format and not T20, which will be a stepping stone for emerging nations who aim for Test status. Following Ireland’s recent heart-warming performances in the short ODI series against Pakistan, I really felt the need for a league system in ODI cricket. The World Cup can remain as it is, but pointless bilateral series have to go. To be honest, watching an India v Sri Lanka ODI match is no longer a source of excitement, rather it is just a waste of time. Unfortunately the cricketing powers-that-be think otherwise.
The league system that I am suggesting can consist of two divisions, of eleven teams each – Division 1 having the ten full members and Ireland, while Division 2 can have eleven emerging Associate and Affiliate nations, based on their performances in the World Cricket League. The league can run from June to March every season, with each team playing every other team twice, once home and once away. In this way, each team will play 20 ODI’s each season, and there will be no issue of one team playing more games than others. Also, with the meaning of a league standing attached to every game, fans too can be expected to be hooked onto the games, which can be played on any day of the week. It means a total of 110 matches, with 4-5 games every week, of course whenever the teams are not involved in Test cricket. played every week. Logistics can also easily be taken care of, for teams will get enough time to play Test series without the pressures of bilateral series and at the same time, the ODI League matches can be scheduled in the respective home seasons.
In a World Cup year, the league can be shortened or tweaked in order to maintain the relevance of the tournament. Otherwise, every March will see the table-topper of the League be crowned as the champions for that season. The format will be much similar to football’s highly successful English Premier League, where there is a champion every year and it keeps the audiences interested for the full length of the competition. Every season, two teams from Division 1 will be relegated while two from Division 2 will be promoted. This will add to the excitement and also give the weaker nations a chance to play substantial number of games against top opposition. To give an example, England can finish their ten home internationals during the four-month period between June and September, leaving enough room for them to play their ten away games any time till March. Similarly, a team like India can play in countries such as England, Ireland and Sri Lanka early in the season before moving on to their home leg.
In this manner, a team will play twenty ODI’s every season – nothing more and nothing less – since bilateral series for each of the teams will only be restricted to Test cricket, and at the most five Twenty20 internationals every year. Thus, a team can easily play around a minimum of twelve to fourteen Test matches in a season without any overlapping from the ODI League. Having said that, the scheduling must be done meticulously by the ICC with the cooperation of and in coordination with all the boards, not like the current Future Tours Programme, which appears to only fill in the coffers of the few top countries.
The league divisions can also double up as the World Cup qualifiers – with ample scope for the Associates to qualify for the quadrennial event – which will further raise the relevance of the tournament. A well-contested country v/s country championship with a points table is what ODI cricket needs at the moment. Consequently, 50-overs cricket will be back in public consciousness and in more than good health.
And now for the few roadblocks that might crop up. This suggestion, in my opinion, is a really good one on paper. But problems may arise when a Division 2 team, say Namibia, gets promoted. If that happens, Namibia will have to play 20 ODI’s against top class Division 1 opposition in that particular season, which may result in many lop-sided encounters. But then again, such weaker teams will gain loads of experience which in turn will be great for the development of the game. After all, a lowly EPL football side such as Stoke City also plays most of their games against elite teams when it is promoted, and this is what adds to the beauty of any sporting competition. Another hitch could be lack of proper infrastructure at venues in Division 2 matches. It is quite doubtful whether countries like Papua New Guinea or Nepal have the proper grounds to host ten matches a year. Then there is the issue of the myriad Twenty20 leagues, which need to be seriously curtailed, difficult as it might sound. Sometimes I wonder how much T20 an average person can withstand, because after a certain point, it becomes akin to nausea.
What shall really be needed is public support and genuine keenness of the administrators to ensure the sustainability of the competition. If that is sorted, there is no reason why an ODI League cannot be a success.