THERE'S a consensus these days that 50-over matches have become predictable. Consider the usual scenario, given a true batter's pitch. It always depends on whether a side bats first or chases, according to its relative strengths. The key to winning is the ability to contain. In the '92 Cup, where we had limited resources, we evolved tactics to upset rivals. Like opening the bowling with a spinner, setting straight-line fields to prevent singles and bowling wicket-to-wicket, forcing batsmen to play down the ground where the boundary was the deepest or risk hitting across the line.
These tactics will always create something of a stalemate, especially in the middle 30 overs. The mad dash of 15 overs, with all but two fielders out, has now been replaced with the "collection" stage. Batsmen are now trying to accumulate steady runs while retaining wickets. You can afford to miss watching the overs between 16 and 40, for you know what's happening. In Tests, there are delicate swings as cricket's nuances play out over a protracted period. There's always something happening that's of interest to the purist. Instant cricket has to address the middle-overs predictability to sustain interest in it.
I've been involved in the inception of Cricket Max, a match that lasts some three hours and is ideal under the lights, for TV and for those who can't indulge themselves longer than that in this modern environment. Over the past few years, I've seen cricket in New Zealand slide in popularity from the number one summer sport to just one of many options. I felt this was partly due to the demands of a busy lifestyle and that a shorter version was the answer. In '95, I devised Cricket Max and approached New Zealand Cricket and Sky Television to test it out. In February '96, the first Cricket Max game was played at the Cornwall Cricket Club, Auckland, before a capacity crowd. The enthusiasm encouraged Sky TV and New Zealand Cricket to launch a Max tourney among the provinces in '96-97. It proved popular on TV and with fans. Youngsters loved it for its non-stop action and short duration. Soon backyard Cricket Max games were being played all over the place.
The appeal is in the concentrated, yet skil-ful, speed of the game. Scoring strokes that reach the Max Zone, some 40 m wide behind the bowler and extending 30 m into the field, are doubled in value. A match can change suddenly—it's possible to make 40-50 runs in one over. Each team has a 10-over first innings and a second innings. The bowlers are limited to a total of four overs each that may be used in either innings. Critics say it's just mad slog but the tactics can get intricate and absorbing. Only those who play straight down earn bonus runs. Batsmen charging for the Zone has resulted in fascinating bowling innovations—"change-up" slower ones, low, slow full tosses and such like that contain the free hitters. Talking of free hits, a no ball means even the next delivery is a free hit—the batsman can only be run out, otherwise not. Result: a very tense, exciting contest. Almost half of the 82 official Max matches played so far have gone right down to the last over.
As for 50-over matches, I feel some experimentation is due. How about a progressive increase in the number of fielders allowed outside the circle? A logical increment would be after every 10 overs, as in only one outfielder in the first 10 overs, two in the second and so on. Or, try a maximum restriction of three outfielders from the 16th over. That would spur more dashing than mere collecting in the middle period. Or, place the onus on the fielding captain to decide which set of 10 overs, in the last 30, he chooses to use for his compulsory three outfielders. Imagine him toying with the option when a new batsman enters! I like the Max system of two innings per side—two 25-over innings sustains right till the end the tension and swing that's often closed out now. It was in '77 that day-night matches redefined the art of cricket. There was much skepticism among the purists, but the public flocked in because they knew change was overdue. Perhaps, it should be anticipated this time.