If you were listening carefully you might just have learned the answer to an ancient riddle in Melbourne, where Australia finished off their whitewash of England in the Contractual Obligation one-day international series on Tuesday. They won the third game by 221 runs, the largest ODI defeat in England’s history. A record, then, and not the game’s only one. There were 10,406 paying spectators in the ground, the smallest recorded audience for an Australia one-day game at the MCG.
It turns out a team falling down when there’s no one around to hear it do still make a sound and it’s something like Jos Buttler’s maudlin after-match interview. “I’m not fussed at all about the results, to be honest,” he said.
The old joke is that the English, not being a spiritual people, invented cricket to give themselves an idea of eternity. Buttler looked and sounded like a man who had been condemned to spend a thousand years in purgatory. He could easily have tried to disguise his disdain for the game, but he seemed too weary to conjure up the usual platitudes. “The landscape of cricket has changed dramatically over the last few years, we’re in a different time,” he said. “Lots of people are talking about how to keep bilateral cricket relevant and this is a good example of how not to do it.”
Ten years ago, the International Cricket Council’s chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, said administrators had created “a vicious circle” by spending so much time talking about the crisis in 50-over cricket, which was struggling even then to stay relevant as Twenty20 grew in popularity. “It reminded me of a British jeweller who pronounced that his merchandise was rubbish. He simply talked himself out of business,” he said.
“We were in danger of doing the same to our much-loved 50-over cricket. The more we talked of a game in crisis the more we created the crisis and the more we fuelled talk of doom and despondency. And all the time there was no real evidence of a crisis.”
If the evidence wasn’t there then, the sound of England’s captain being interviewed about the futility of this series he had just finished suggests there might be now. The three games were supposed to be part of the run-up to next year’s 50-over World Cup, but were pushed back six months and tacked on to the backside of the T20 World Cup England have just won. They were played because they had been promised to the broadcasters.
England were in the unprecedented situation where Australia were actually taking pity on them. “We’re satisfied as a team, it’s been fantastic,” said David Warner, who won player of the series after he bludgeoned 208 runs in three innings, “but it’s been a long couple of months for the English team and once you’ve been on a high like that sometimes it’s quite difficult to get up, I know you are playing international cricket, but it’s one of those things you ride that wave of emotions.”
As Buttler was wrapping up, another England team were getting ready for a warm-up game for their Test tour of Pakistan 8,000 miles away in the United Arab Emirates, the sort of split-tour arrangement that is becoming a feature of international cricket. It will happen again next spring when England are due to finish a Test in New Zealand the day before they start a one-day series in Bangladesh.
“I feel a 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 older ones have already given up on the idea.
Some of this congestion is the consequence of the decisions to pull out of tours of South Africa, Bangladesh and Pakistan at various points during the pandemic; some of it the upshot of the players’ desire to make sure they would be available for the Indian Premier League; some of it the England and Wales Cricket Board’s desire to make sure they are available for the Hundred.
But more of it is down to inveterate greed and the ICC’s decision to stage a major global event every year for eight years straight between 2024 and 2031, whether it’s a T20 World Cup, a World Cup or the Champions Trophy (an event that absolutely refuses to die however many times they try to kill it).
Buttler doesn’t think much of this, either. “The ICC tournaments should be a little more spread out, it would give you more time to prepare and it would make them a little more special when they do come around as well.”
In return, the ICC agreed to junk its nascent one-day Super League so member countries could have more control over their own playing schedules in between ICC commitments. The Super League, which was only launched in 2020, was designed “to raise the stakes of bilateral 50-over games” by cutting out dead rubbers. Like the one England just lost in Melbourne.
Next winter, England play the 50-over World Cup in India. It will, doubtless, be a great tournament, a fillip for the one-day format. But if they make it to the final on 26 November they will be able to celebrate it by going to the West Indies a week later, for three more ODIs and five T20s.
In short, the same thing, or something very much like it, is going to happen all over again 12 months from now. “Take care of it,” Buttler told the authorities on Tuesday. “Find a way to keep it all relevant.” Fat chance.