In the second week of January, two very different scenes were playing out in two very different cities. In Mumbai, young cricketers with just about a dozen good performances in the domestic circuit were lining up at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) headquarters to be drafted for the various franchises in the fourth season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) for undisclosed sums. In Dhaka, riot police were lathicharging frustrated and angry fans, many of whom had failed to get tickets for the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup despite having slept overnight on the pavements in a long queue.

Heroes: The Indian cricket team in Mumbai after winning the 2007 T20 World Cup.

Despite the violence in Dhaka, the ICC would have been pleased with the demand for tickets, because the player drafts in Mumbai could well signal the end of a format of the game that has for 40 long years been a wonderful companion to the cricket fan.

The first One Day International (ODI) was conjured up one gloomy morning in Melbourne four decades ago to keep spectators in their seats with an alternative contest to the five-day Test between England and Australia that got rained off. Now faced with the thrill-a-minute excitement of Twenty20 (T20), the ODI could be on its way out.

“The immediate results in a Twenty20 game draw the crowds to the stadiums," says former Pakistan captain Zaheer Abbas, “it’s more like a mela with all the entertainment thrown in, and that’s the reason the crowds swell. The way Twenty20 is proliferating, who knows what’s to happen to ODIs, or for that matter the World Cup." Abbas is a “traditionalist", one of the waning number of former cricketers who consider T20 an apology for the “real"game of cricket. “I was watching a game with (Sunil) Gavaskar a few days back in Dubai," says Abbas, “and we were discussing that in our times, had we played any of these T20 shots, our coach would have given us a royal spanking and made us do 15 rounds in the park."

Despite such scoffing from purists, T20 has raced ahead of ODIs in popularity since its inception in 2005, with stadiums sold out, TV ratings soaring, and ad revenue rising in a steep curve. ODIs hit a roadblock as recently as the last World Cup, when the 16-team tournament was held over a straggling seven weeks over March and April in 2007 in the Caribbean, testing the patience of even the format’s staunchest fans. In comparison, the Fifa World Cup in 2010, featuring 32 teams, finished in a crisp and exciting four weeks.

“I remember waiting for close to twoand-a-half weeks for South Africa’s next game against Bangladesh," says former South African bowler Allan Donald, who spearheaded the country’s pace attack in the 1992, 1996 and 1999 World Cups. “People want to see impact sports, and ODIs seem to be lacking that intensity, perhaps that’s why it’s fading quickly."

Getting started: (left) Kerry Packer meets journalists after announcing the formation of WSC. Hilton Archive/Getty Images; and Matthew Hayden. Hindustan Times

Rohit Gupta, president, Multi Screen Media India (MSM), which owns the Sony bouquet of channels in India and was in charge of broadcasting the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, says there was nothing to rival the tournament’s popularity among cricket-playing nations right until the beginning of the 2007 tournament. “It was like the football World Cup."

But after the 2007 fiasco, which featured a final being played under shockingly poor light conditions, and the mysterious death of South Africa’s legendary coach Bob Woolmer (which turned into a murder investigation during the tournament, and grabbed more attention than the matches itself), things suddenly looked gloomy. “TV ratings dropped massively after that," says Gupta.

The TAM (Television Audience Measurement)* ratings paint a particularly damaging picture for ODIs. The average TAM figure in India for the 2007 World Cup was 2.1, with the final notching up a figure of 4.5. For the 2009 ICC Champions Trophy featuring the world’s top eight ODI teams, the average TAM rating as well as viewership for the final was a measly 1.6. Compare that with the IPL—the first season in 2008 had an average rating of 4.7, while the final was rated at 9.3. The 2010 IPL season maintained that average, but bettered the viewership ratings for the final with 10.5.

“I think after 2007, the youth just moved away from ODIs," says Gupta.

MSM is no longer involved with the World Cup, and has been broadcasting the IPL since 2008.

The rise of T20

A chilly September evening in Johannesburg in 2007, just months after the ICC World Cup, ODI cricket had another body blow to nurse. Contrary to expectations and predictions, a new look and young Indian cricket team, marshalled by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, won the inaugural T20 World Cup, beating archrivals Pakistan in a last-ball thriller that sent the stadium spectators and millions of TV viewers in India into a frenzy. The TAM ratings for the final peaked at an unprecedented 15.9.

A rousing open bus-top parade later, India’s T20 champions were being feted as superheroes—treatment only similar in intensity to the one that greeted India’sWorld Cup-winning captain Kapil Dev and his team back in 1983.

In 2008, within a hundred days of India’s T20 World Cup win, then BCCI vice-president Lalit Modi had completed conceptualizing and putting into place cricket’s next big revolution, the IPL. It was the perfect mix of national and international cricket stars redefining loyalties and rivalries, Bollywood stars, cricketers and business tycoons working and partying together, and breathtakingly fast-paced cricket played in under 3 hours. “The youth came back to cricket, and they were loving every bit of it," says Gupta.

With viewership soaring, it was inevitable that Twenty20 cricket would start biting into the ODI ad pie. “Advertisers can now pick and choose what they want to," says Deepak Jolly, vice-president, public affairs, Coca-Cola India. “T20 has become a very interesting vehicle to reach the audience. It is a 360-degree entertainment package, a format made for TV, that can be played during prime time." The IPL, in many ways, took a page out of the book of the late Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer, who failed to get the exclusive rights to broadcast Australian cricket in 1976 after reportedly telling the Australian cricket board “Come gentlemen, we all have a bit of a harlot in us." Packer, furious after the snub, went on a signing spree for an alternative cricket tournament—World Series Cricket—in the same year. He managed to bag the top players of the time, including Australian captain Greg Chappell, England captain Tony Greig and West Indies captain Clive Lloyd, with lucrative offers that far exceeded the money being paid by cricket’s governing bodies to its players. “It’s the easiest sport in the world to take over," Packer said at the time, “nobody bothered to pay the players what they were worth."

In 1977, the rebel series was launched. In 1978, World Series Cricket introduced coloured clothing, floodlights, white balls, black sight screens, and unmatched, multicamera television coverage—44,337 people turned up for the first ever day-night One Day match at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 28 November 1978, between the WSC Australian and West Indies teams. From a tame sidekick to Test matches, One Day cricket had turned into a vibrant format that heralded cricket’s future, turning it into hot commercial property. Now T20 is repeating history.

In IPL season 4, rookies such as Saurabh Tiwary, who has played just three ODIs for India, were signed on for $6 million (around R27 crore). A grade-A contract with the BCCI (the highest level) for playing in the Indian team is worth R1 crore. India bowler S. Sreesanth, who was bought for $900,000, holds a grade-C contract from the BCCI worth R25 lakh.

“It really looks like Twenty20 is running cricket worldwide," says Donald. “Look at the revenue, look at the money being made, it’s ridiculous. Sometimes I wish I’d been born 15 years later!"

The need for change

The T20 and ODI formats have a connection that seems ironic in hindsight.

The One Day format was invented by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in the early 1970s to stem falling attendance at domestic cricket matches.

Mixed bag: IPL (top) has been a spectators’ delight, with teams comprising Indian and international stars. Hindustan Times; and India celebrate their win in the second match of the recently concluded ODI series in South Africa in Johannesburg on 15 January. Alexander Joe/AFP

In 2001, dwindling spectator numbers in county matches forced another rethink in the ECB, with its marketing head Stuart Robertson conceiving the T20 format to attract more crowds.

“I don’t like cricket, I love it," from the 10cc hit single Dreadlock Holiday, became the slogan as ECB launched its very own Twenty20 Cup in 2003. Nearly 27,000 people packed into Lord’s to watch Middlesex play Surrey—the highest attendance for any county cricket match, excluding One Day finals, since 1953.

One Dayers were so badly under attack from the shortest format of the game that by 2010, ECB had dropped the traditional 50-over format of One Day cricket to adopt a 40-over version for its domestic competition. Cricket Australia (CA), the governing body for Australian cricket, adopted an even more radical format for its domestic competition—four innings of 20 overs each, with wickets being carried over from the earlier innings.

“We researched Australian fans last summer and found that the arrival of T20 cricket is creating a view that there needs to be a more distinctive difference between ODI and T20 cricket," says CA spokesperson Peter Young. “So the idea of split innings is to ensure One Day games have a distinctively different look and feel to T20 cricket, and also to inject some changes that make the middle sessions of games livelier."

Pointing out that different versions of the game need different skills, former Australian opener Adam Gilchrist says that unlike Test cricket, which doesn’t need to be played around with, “ODIs are the perfect forums for experimentation".

The ICC too is considering reinventing ODIs by chopping them down to 40-overs a side. Sachin Tendulkar too had suggested that perhaps a split-innings game could help matters.

“I think the ICC must bring something else to the table," says Donald.

“One Day cricket has got to be more fun to watch." Young says CA too have been “pushing for ICC World Cup changes to make it more relevant to fans".

Shailendra Singh, joint managing director, Percept Ltd, feels T20 has got its finger on the pulse of both fans and marketeers. “Test cricket is still the real passion for cricket lovers," says Singh, “but One Day cricket now finds itself in no man’s land. Look at Aamir Khan or Salman Khan, and see the way they have reinvented themselves. ODIs too must do something to change the way people watch them, or else there might not be any watchers soon."

Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, the highest wicket-taker in both Tests and ODIs, offers another perspective to the fading interest in ODIs—overkill. India played 27 ODIs in 2010, and just eight Tests. Sri Lanka slugged it out in 22 ODIs and six Tests in the same period. “If you have One Day cricket every day, people will simply lose interest," Muralitharan says. “T20 is short, quick and full of impact, so the time has come to be selective while scheduling ODIs."

Perhaps keeping these trends in mind, the ODI World Cup is being limited to 10 teams from 2015. It is with obvious trepidation that the game’s guardians will be watching the World Cup that kicks off on 19 February in the subcontinent.

The euphoria generated by the last World Cup in the subcontinent in 1996, when the ODI format was at its peak, will be missing. After a spreadeagled tournament in 2007, the ICC has managed to stir up something that is just a bit shorter—six weeks compared with the gargantuan seven weeks in the Caribbean. The format of the World Cup this time also ensures that India has very little chance of exiting in the first round, but the team plays only six games in the first 30 days of the tournament, and only three of them are against Test-playing nations.

“Advertisers go for the eyeballs. But with the viewers having already being given the most exciting version in T20, will they stay as long for this one?" asks Singh. If they don’t, this may be the last call for 50-over cricket, and the World Cup as we know it.

Sanjeeb Mukherjea is the chief cricket correspondent for CNN-IBN.

* TAM ratings courtesy TAM Sports, a division of TAM India. Numbers represent the percentage of TV-viewing homes in India (which are covered by TAM meters) watching a particular programme.

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