Over the years, and more especially over the past decade or so, cricket has systematically attempted to transform itself into a sport that combines fast-paced on-field action with a frenetic off-field entertainment component. The spectator is truly king, and administrators have become focused on accommodating the needs of the audience into the larger dynamics of running the sport. Somewhere along the way, cricket has learnt to seamlessly integrate its historic traditions with a more modern, marketing oriented narrative that not so long ago was anathema.
One upshot of this development is that change now follows a far more rapid cycle. Over a century went by before one day cricket came along to challenge the monopoly of Test cricket; however, it did not take half as long for T20 to emerge as an alternative. The upshot has been that 50-over cricket is now under threat from the T20 format; it is widely argued that the lack of action in the middle overs, when both sides are in consolidation mode, slows the game down and thus results in a bored audience.
As a result, experimentation has been rife as far as the 50-over format is concerned. Countries like England and South Africa have tried to shorten the game to 45 overs a side, among other experiments. More recently, Cricket Australia innovated with the introduction of the new "20/25" split-innings format at the domestic level, specifically in the Ryobi National One-Day Cup. Cricket Australia, now conducting a season-long trial of the new format, hopes that five years from now when it is Australia's turn to co-host the 2015 World Cup with New Zealand, this new format could well be the template for the competition.
Interestingly, while leading cricket voices like that of Martin Crowe (the man who invented the original split-innings format or “Max Cricket” (1997/98) in New Zealand) and Ian Chappell have for long proposed a split innings format to replace the existing 50-over template, it was Sachin Tendulkar's open endorsement last year that has given the move an impetus, generated debate in the mainstream, and ultimately culminated in the experiment now being seen in Australia.
So what kind of animal is 20/25? It is in essence a one-day game played over 45 overs per team, with split innings, or 'Stages' as they are called, of 20 and 25 overs respectively. Here's how it works: Team A bats first and at the end of 20 overs, its inning is suspended. Team B now comes out to bat for 20 overs. Then Team A returns to bat, with 25 overs at its disposal; then Team B gets 25 overs in its turn. It's almost like an overs-limited Test match with one important difference — while in a Test each innings is a separate entity, in this 20/25 format, the team's score is frozen at the end of the 20 over Stage I, and when it returns to bat in the 25-over Stage II, it resumes from that position; in other words, it is one innings split into two stages, not two overs-limited innings.
In keeping with the reformed format, playing conditions have been tweaked as well. Thus, the team comprises 12 players, not 11 - and each side can bat and field any 11 of the 12; the only condition is that only 11 players be on the field at any one point. One bowler per-side can bowl a maximum of 12 overs. A new ball will be available at each end at the start of an innings; there will however be no replacement of the ball in course of the game (unless the ball is damaged). The "power plays" have been reformatted as well — between overs 1-5 and overs 21-25, only two fielders are permitted outside the circle; between overs 26-45, there can be four fielders outside the circle, maximum. A team wins one point for taking a lead in the first Stage and that point is retained even if the team leading after the first Stage goes on to lose the game; there are four points for a win, and a total of five points if a team leads in Stage one and then goes on to win the game.
I sat through a Queensland vs New South Wales game a couple of weeks ago to try and understand the format. NSW won handsomely, gaining the first-innings lead and chasing down a modest total of 157 to win the game by 6 wickets. My first thoughts about the format: confusing, yet interesting. Some observations:
#Wickets in hand become critical for the batting side in the first stage of 20 overs. Teams would far rather resume the second and critical Stage with three wickets down rather than five. In a sense, teams could look on the first Stage as a T20 game, trying to amass as many runs as they can while losing as few wickets as possible; the first helps gain that crucial extra point, while wickets in hand enable the big push in the second half. This strategy works best against weaker bowling line ups; by and large scoring in the first stage of the ongoing Ryobi Cup have tended to hover around 4.5 to 5.5 runs an over, with the exception of a 131/1 racked up by Victoria against Western Australia.
#From a bowler's perspective, the first-innings lead point is an added incentive to not just pick regular wickets, but even restrict the flow of runs. The flip side is that bowlers used to the luxury of five outside the circle in the traditional format now have to be content with just four, making it even more challenging, especially for spinners. Ultimately, spinners could be forced into a T20 mindset where the inclination is to dart the ball in rather than flight it, to avoid getting hit. And this could have the long term effect of further eroding the quality of spin bowling in international cricket.
#From a captaincy point of view, the new format could lead to some unusual field settings. Crucially, the split innings format reduces the impact of the toss on the result - though the final word on this can come only after we see the format in action in sub-continental conditions.
#This format could bring the batting all-rounder into sharp focus - the bloke who can slam a match-turning fifty in the second Stage, and give his captain eight overs or more of good tight bowling. Also, the lead bowler in a side now has two extra overs to bowl, which reduces the dependency on the part time bowler by that much.
#Finally, one advantage of the split-innings format is it gives teams in not-so-great positions a chance to regroup and make their way back into the game through a better display in the second Stage.
Ben Rohrer of the New South Wales Blues told me on phone that the format, while interesting, presents its own set of challenges to the player. "Conserving wickets in the first session has been a big focus, allowing us to attack the first 5 overs of the second session with the field up. With our bowling, not much has changed - taking early wickets and hitting our areas at the death remains the key.
"As a batsman," Rohrer added, "starting your innings twice has been the biggest challenge. With only four fielders allowed outside the circle, our bowlers have had to adapt quickly to different batsmen and situations. Fielding is certainly more exciting and intense; there seems to be more happening without the "middle overs" of a traditional one-day game." Despite it being early days yet, Rohrer says "It is something different and hopefully more interesting for the viewer."
Victorian Bushrangers coach Greg Shipperd says it is too early to evaluate the format and take a call on whether it can radically alter one day cricket in the future. "We're learning as we go as far as this format is concerned, but is an exciting format," Shipperd said. "The very facet of a 'game within a game' brings in a lot into the game. This is a new challenge for all of us, and we'll sit down and evaluate the tournament at the end of the season and see where we go."
Interestingly, Shipperd was quick to point out the risk Cricket Australia had taken in trialling the format this year, in the build up to a World Cup year. Typically, you want to use this time to build your skills in the World Cup format, not play a different format altogether - but CA is clearly prepared to risk that.
The real arbiter of whether the format works or no is, of course, the audience - and on this front Fox Sports, Cricket Australia's broadcasters for the tournament, seem quite pleased with the viewership and the numbers thus far. Overall ratings of the broadcaster are up 12% for the first three weeks of the tournament, compared to the same period last year when the FR Cup was played over the traditional 50-over format. The game between Queensland and Victoria was the third highest rated domestic one-day game in the past two years. Stephen Gray, Media and Public Relations Manager of Queensland Cricket notes, "Crowds are probably about the same or maybe a little down, although there have been some weather issues around some of the games." The fans' response, Rohrer felt, was positive as they "seem to be enjoying something new" -- and given the emerging trend of last over finishes, the format could generate even greater interest among fans.
And oh yes, purely from a spectator's point of view, there is this: earlier, when following a one day game, chances were by the time you were done with work and landed up at the ground, one innings would be over - and it could well have been your favorite team that batted first, thus diminishing your interest in the other half of the game. Now, with the split innings format, chances are you will get to see both sides in action, even if you can only catch the second half of the game. So what's not to like?