40-Overs, But Not
As We Know It

Comment and Analysis | 24th April 2010

There is not one element of this year's domestic cricket schedule that hasn't provoked consternation with one party or another, whether it is a County Championship in which half the fixtures will have been completed by the first week of June, or a Twenty20 Cup now so bloated it will go on and on, night after night, for the best part of two months mid-summer, not including finals day.

The decision to dump 50-over cricket instead of the popular 40-over game, when early indications were that the reverse would happen, has been another vexed issue.

The argument against the switch is straightforward: it makes no sense to play domestic one-day games over 40 overs when the international standard is 50.

Perhaps it doesn't. But England players have been practising 50-over cricket with their counties since 1997 and we are still the only major cricket-playing nation never to have won a World Cup or an ICC Trophy. There is nothing to suggest that grim record will change any time soon and, in any event, many cricketers would argue that the disciplines involved in 40-over matches are not significantly different.

In other words, if you can excel over 40 overs, there is no reason why an extra 10 overs per innings should be a problem.

If anything, moving from 50 overs to 40 overs as the format for a single one-day cricket tournament is the part of the revised domestic programme that makes the most sense.

From a commercial point of view, playing over 40 overs instead of 50 is a no-brainer.  Ask any chief executive which is the easier game to sell: a 50-over game starting at 11 in the morning, perhaps even earlier, and taking up a whole day, or a 40-over game that can neatly be packaged into a Sunday afternoon?

England is not alone in seeing 40 overs as the way forward. South Africa has trimmed its domestic one-day championship from 45 overs to 40 and there is growing momentum behind the feeling that international cricket, sooner or later, will abandon the 50-over format, which has evolved in a way that often sees a flat and predictable phase in the middle of an innings.

The 40-over game has been popular since its conception in the late 1960s, when the International Cavaliers toured the country, playing against county sides on Sunday afternoon.  It spawned the launch in 1969 of the John Player League, a competition which became part of the rhythm of the English Sunday, as convenient for churchgoers, when there were some, as it was for folk who would hold their congregation in the pub.

The biggest crowds of the week would invariably gather for the Sunday League and the cricket, though it was derided by those who saw themselves as 'purists' in the game as much as Twenty20 is today, was often the most entertaining, played out in a lively, family atmosphere.

When the competition lost its regular Sunday slot, with games dropped here and there into holes in the fixture list whatever the day of the week, cricket abandoned one of its success stories for no logical reason.

The new Clydesdale Bank 40 takes the format back to its traditional routes.  Not every game is scheduled for a Sunday but the variations -- Saturdays, Friday nights, Bank Holiday Mondays -- make much more sense than the random Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays that has made recent incarnations of the competition so difficult to follow.

Spectators will have to get used to changes, nonetheless.  Instead of two divisions, with promotion and relegation, the Clydesdale Bank version has three leagues, drawn largely at random on a non-geographical basis.

The competition also makes sure the new-look summer still has a Lord's final to look forward to by adding a mini knock-out to follow the league stage, with the winners of each, plus the best runner-up, progressing to the semi-finals.

Each league will comprise seven teams, the 18 counties being joined by the international teams of Scotland and Holland and a team representing recreational cricket, which has been christened, for no obvious reason, the Unicorns.

With only the group winner sure to progress to the final, qualification will have to be earned and competition is sure to be fierce, with much emphasis on making a strong start.  Which teams will be good enough still to be in the running come September.

The problem with a random draw is that you don't necessarily end up with the finalists the competition organisers might prefer, and there will have been a few groans when Sussex and Somerset both landed in Group A.

Somerset were runners-up to Sussex in both the two-division Pro40 last season and the Twenty20 Cup, and were beaten by them in the quarter-finals of the Friends Provident Trophy.

However, Sussex's chances in the new competition are undermined by the loss of Ed Joyce, who hit 941 runs in one-day cricket last season but will not be available at least until late May as he recovers from major hip surgery during the winter.

Marcus Trescothick's team have their sights on more Twenty20 success but would also relish a trip to Lord's and if Sussex fail to keep with them in the early rounds might be hard to peg back. Lancashire, whom they face at Old Trafford a week tomorrow, could also be a threat.

Group B looks the weakest of the three.  Essex have the best one-day pedigree on the form of recent years but have lost their top run-getter, Varun Chopra, to Warwickshire, and could face a real challenge from Yorkshire, although the availability of England players might be an issue.  Overseas signing Tino Best is due to make his county debut against Essex at Chelmsford in the opening match.

Were the Netherlands, also in Group B, to field the side that sensationally beat England at the World Twenty20 last year they would be genuine contenders -- but three of that line-up have retired, Dirk Nannes is playing for Australia in this year's World Twenty20, and Ryan ten Doeschate (Essex) and Alexei Kervezee (Worcestershire) are with English counties.

The hardest call is Group C.  Hampshire, the 2009 Friends Provident Trophy winners, will be favourites, having added the likes of Neil McKenzie and Kabir Ali to an already-strong squad.

But Kent can never be ruled out in one-day competitions, while Durham and Nottinghamshire, so strong in four-day cricket, will  surely find their feet in the shorter game sooner or later.  Warwickshire have the capacity to surprise.  Only Scotland and Matthew Hoggard's inexperienced Leicestershire look safe to exclude.

Jon Culley writes on cricket for The Independent and about sports books for The Sports Bookshelf website.

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