ODIs are the awkward middle child of the cricket fraternity. Tests have seniority and T20s are the adored young’un. But ODIs have their moments. The question is though, what makes an exciting one?
First and foremost: a close margin of victory (say, under 10 runs or two wickets) or a tie. Bat and ball balance is also crucial. If a game is weighed in favor of the batsmen, with nothing in it for the bowlers, then it’s going to be predictable. A good example would be the India-Australia ODIs in early 2016.
There was nothing in it for the bowlers there, and the batsmen were made to run up as high a score as possible on slow and predictable tracks. Only once were 10 wickets in an innings taken (out of 10 innings) and only once (out of 10 times) did a team score at under 6. Almost 52 runs were scored per wicket, to hammer home the complete dominance of the batsmen over the bowlers. The series was also pretty unmemorable as well.
That was helped by the fact that the games had no context (something which I’ll get to later) and the fact that 300 is par for the course. This would’ve been a memorable series for that if it was 10 or 20 years ago when 300 was less achievable, but now, it’s really nothing.You know what’s going to happen, both teams will make 300, few wickets will fall. It might make for a tense final few overs, but aside from that, it’s quite boring to watch.
Stepping even further down the rabbit hole, there are ODIs in their more extreme. Ones which completely and utterly throw out balance. First of these two kinds, ones which are heavily stacked in favor of the bowlers. When something like 105 can be defended by almost 40 runs, that’s certainly a pitch for the bowlers.
These can be thrilling because every ball you know something will happen. Runs don’t matter, just surviving. Every ball which isn’t dangerously close to a wicket is an unusual one. The atmosphere is charged in anticipation for the next unplayable ball.
At the complete opposite end of the scale are the games where it’s all there for the batsmen. There’s no slow pitch and outfield, making the bowlers look slightly better, it’s a flat pitch with pace, a quick outfield and possibly a Wanderers level thin atmosphere.
Things are so bad for the bowlers that you just don’t care anymore. Instead, enjoy the show. Johannesburg 2006 is the best example of this type of game. Australia smashed the record for highest score, with, Katich aside, the Australian crew blitzing quick fifties, but South Africa ran so quickly at the start that there was no way they weren’t going to reach the target unless they ran out of wickets, which started to happen once Smith and Gibbs were dismissed.
Boucher, however, kept his nerve, chipped Lee over the infield when the scores were level to seal the most extraordinary of wins. These types of games are exciting because every single ball can be a boundary, and wickets come more in these games than on the slow, flat pitches, because the batsmen, drunk in their success, might get a bit too cute and mistime one. So the bowlers aren’t necessarily out of the equation here.
If there’s balance between bat and ball, scores of 270-9/268-10 will be more expected. A balance between bat and ball would be if there’s something in the pitch for the bowlers (like some swing, seam, turn and/or uneven bounce for good bowlers to exploit) but if the batsmen apply themselves, then they’ll succeed.
A recent example of these types of games would be England vs South Africa at the start of 2016. Alex Hales made a fifty in every game, and he did that by playing out the good balls, punishing the not-so-good ones and batting deep. AB de Villiers won the decider for South Africa by doing just that as well.
This series was arguably the best ODI series of 2016, and it’s because two quality sides played some quality cricket to produce 5 exciting games. Perhaps the most famous ODI ever was one like this: the World Cup semi final of 1999 at Edgbaston. 213 then is pretty much 270 now, both teams had good bowlers (Pollock took 5 wickets, Warne and Donald took 4) who exploited a helpful pitch but faced some resistance from batsmen who applied themselves (Bevan, Waugh, Rhodes, Kallis)
Going a bit further down, there’s also the possibility of a pitch favoring the bowlers. The match was immortalized by that heartbreaking run out, but everything before that is what makes it as close to a perfect ODI as possible. Why these are the best type is because nearly every ball you know something will happen, be it a good ball that’s kept out, a good shot that goes away to the fence, an excellent spell, an outrageous innings that somehow worked, a chanceless innings on a tough pitch, they can all happen, and they’re always what people want.
The two games commonly seen as the two best ODIs were the aforementioned Edgbaston semi final and Johannesburg 2006. Both were exciting games on widely different pitches, but they both had one other thing going for them: context.
The Edgbaston semi final is a World Cup semi final, it has context beyond belief. The fact that it came right down to the wire made it all the more exciting. The Johannesburg 2006 game was the last game in a series where Australia had come back from 2-0 to 2-2.
These were the two best teams in the world, this was a World Championship of sorts. Many ODIs nowadays have a complete lack of context (T20Is have this problem too, but those games are shorter and rarer so it’s less of a problem), so as a result, games just aren’t memorable because they mean nothing.
The ways to solve this would be to introduce the ODI league, or just play only tournaments (like triangular and quadrangular series) in addition to the trophies. So to make the new best ODI, bat and ball balance, a margin of victory of under 10 runs or 2 wickets or a tie, and preferably context, like a World Cup final.