Shubman Gill hit four delectable fours in the sixth over

Sparse crowds greeted the India-Sri Lanka ODI series earlier this year. ODI cricket has increasingly been lost in the liminal space between Test and T20s since the last World Cup

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What happens when the ODI World Cup meets a T20 mindset?

White-ball cricket has changed enormously since the last World Cup: 2023 is the first big ODI event where players are going in not knowing much about what the format is anymore

Nathan Leamon  |  

There is a popular psychological concept known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It is often expressed as the theory that people who have a small amount of experience in a given subject have more confidence in their knowledge than those who know a lot, and more even than experts on the topic. It is the scientific version of the old saying "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing".

A quick search will find you dozens of TikTok and YouTube videos explaining the theory, as well as countless memes and takedowns about it on X, formerly Twitter. There is even an oft-quoted corollary to these online pieces, that the Dunning-Kruger effect explains why less experienced people often out-debate experts. Because their greater confidence and lack of nuance is more appealing to an audience.

In a pleasing irony, those people who use Dunning and Kruger's work to denigrate those they think don't understand a subject generally misunderstand and misuse it, because they only have a passing knowledge of the topic. In reality, it's not a trap that stupid people fall for, but something that affects us all as our understanding of a certain subject evolves and improves.

I can't remember a time when cricket has seemed to exist in such a liminal space. Not since the 1970s and Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket has the game been in a position of greater flux. No one can tell you confidently what professional cricket, and in particular international cricket, will look like in three or four years' time. There are ageless structures and traditions of the game that a few years ago were permanent and fixed, that could disappear tomorrow and it would not be a surprise. The irresistible force of T20 expansion is overturning the established order. And of all the formats, ODI cricket seems the most lost.

It is hard to imagine Test cricket, with its hundred years of pre-eminence, disappearing any time soon. T20 cricket is the economic engine room of the sport and will be for the foreseeable future. But 50-over cricket? If it disappeared tomorrow, how much of a hole would it actually leave?

Fans in Sri Lanka watch the 2011 World Cup final, a tournament that reignited interest in the 50-over format, in Colombo

Fans in Sri Lanka watch the 2011 World Cup final, a tournament that reignited interest in the 50-over format, in Colombo © AFP

For cricket fans, I've always thought that a good Test match is like a novel; you live alongside it for a few days. Picking it up, putting it down, coming back to it periodically. It weaves itself into and around the rest of your life. The various narrative arcs have ample time to wax and wane.

By contrast T20 cricket is more like a film or a play. Like a football or rugby match, you watch it largely in one sitting. The action is faster, more compressed, the storylines simpler and shorter, if no less compelling.

ODI cricket can be the best of both worlds, combining the intensity of T20s with the complexity of Tests. Or it can be the worst of both formats, too long to realistically watch in one sitting, sometimes with the result decided early on, and no draw to hold out hope for the underdog. ODIs seem to offer nothing unique that the other formats don't do better. Except, perhaps, for World Cups, which have the scale and duration to make them feel like truly significant events.

In the past, World Cups have often been watersheds in the evolution of ODI cricket. They have at times reinvigorated the format just as it seemed to be losing relevance, like in 2011. At other times they have crystallised and showcased the latest high-octane version of the game, as they did in 2015 and 2019. Will that be the case this time round?

One interesting aspect of the 2023 tournament is that it comes after an unusual period of consistency and stability in the format's rules.

This is the first World Cup for some time that will be played with no major rule changes to the ODI format. In the 2011 tournament in India, teams were wrestling with three powerplays per innings, including both a batting and a bowling powerplay that the two teams could choose when to deploy. Playing with only one ball brought reverse swing into the equation in the second half of the innings, and white-ball cricket was full of "mystery" offspinners who could turn the ball sharply in both directions.

Spinners like Sunil Narine were a casualty of ICC's crackdown on suspect actions ahead of the 2015 World Cup

Spinners like Sunil Narine were a casualty of ICC's crackdown on suspect actions ahead of the 2015 World Cup © BCCI

By 2015 we were playing with two new balls and a maximum of four fielders outside the ring throughout. And in the six months prior to the tournament, an ICC crackdown on suspect bowling actions had removed many of the world's most effective spinners from proceedings. These changes sent scoring rates through the roof, particularly at the end of the innings.

In 2019, the batting powerplay was dispensed with, and five fielders were allowed outside the ring for the last ten overs. Scoring rates became more even through the course of the innings, and wristspinners became the main purveyors of mystery spin, filling the gap left by the outlawed doosra bowlers.

In 2023 though, although there has been a steady drip of minor tweaks to the Laws of Cricket, the basic format of 50-over cricket has now remained unchanged for over eight years, an unprecedented period in its recent history. (It's still five fielders outside the ring in the death overs.)

And yet, the 2023 version of ODI cricket is unlikely to look like the 2019 model. Although the 50-over rules have stayed the same, the experience of being a white-ball cricketer has changed enormously in the period between the World Cups.

When limited-overs international matches started in the early 1970s, they were played by professional first-class cricketers, players equipped with techniques and tactics refined over their entire professional careers to succeed in timed, multi-day matches - what we would now call red-ball cricket. Knowing very little about limited-overs cricket, they assumed that they knew more than they did. And so it was that for decades afterwards, ODI cricket looked like a slightly more aggressive version of Test cricket.

Innovations from T20 cricket - outrageous batting shots, relay catches, slower-ball bouncers - have bled into the 50-over format, changing how it is played

Innovations from T20 cricket - outrageous batting shots, relay catches, slower-ball bouncers - have bled into the 50-over format, changing how it is played © Getty Images

Match-ups, slower-ball bouncers, relay catches on the boundary, scoops and range-hitting, even the white balls that would give white-ball cricket its name, were still decades away.

The thing that changed this, that propelled white-ball cricket onto its own distinct path of evolution, was the introduction of professional T20 cricket.

Like the first limited-overs cricket before it, T20 cricket was initially played by cricketers whose "day job" was red-ball cricket. There were a few List A specialists, but most professional cricketers wholly or partially specialised in first-class cricket. That was what their technique, their tactics, their practice and their mentality had been endlessly honed to be successful at.

Even by 2010, when I first started working in professional cricket, when you watched international teams practise ahead of T20 games, it just looked like a typical cricket net. Bowlers hit their lengths, and batters defended and left the ball as often as they attacked. But even then, white-ball thinking was starting to accelerate away and ahead.

The growth of T20 franchise leagues around the world, in particular the IPL, which overnight became the richest game in town, meant that the next generation of pro cricketers played T20 cricket from day one. The format became its own world. The shots played in T20 cricket started to look designed for that format, not for defending your wicket in a Test match a hundred years ago.

As the years went by, T20 cricket overcame the Anxiety of Influence and, slowly but surely, the direction of the flow of ideas reversed. It became the main source of cricketing innovation. T20 shots and tactics started to diffuse into 50-over cricket and even, to a much lesser extent, Test matches.

Jofra Archer had played all of three ODIs before the 2019 World Cup, but was entrusted with bowling the pivotal Super Over in the final

Jofra Archer had played all of three ODIs before the 2019 World Cup, but was entrusted with bowling the pivotal Super Over in the final © Getty Images

By 2019, the world's best white-ball cricketers were playing as many 20-over matches as 50-over ones. But this broke down largely as domestic T20 and international 50-over cricket. In international cricket, the major teams were focused very much on ODI cricket in the years running up to 2019.

In the three years prior to the World Cup in 2019, Full Member countries played nearly three times as many ODIs as T20Is. And even with the large amount of domestic T20 cricket being played, 85% of the players in that World Cup had faced or bowled more balls in 50-over cricket than in 20-over cricket during that period.

That stands in stark contrast to the last four years, when events have conspired to invert that ratio.

First came the Covid pandemic, which shut down cricket all over the globe. In the scramble to rebuild revenues and get cricket back up and running, most national cricket boards prioritised their income-generating T20 leagues ahead of other forms of cricket.

At the same time, international teams were pivoting fixtures towards T20 internationals in preparation for the scheduled World Cups in 2020 and 2021. The first of those tournaments, in Australia, was pushed forward to 2022, meaning teams spent three full years in T20 World Cup preparation mode.

The combined effect was to drastically alter the balance of white-ball cricket played by the world's best players, tilting it towards 20 overs and away from 50-over cricket.

Players in the squads of the four 2019 semi-finalists (Australia, England, India, New Zealand) had played on average 72 T20 matches and 68 List A matches in the period from the end of the 2015 World Cup until the 2019 tournament. In the next four years, those players have averaged 81 T20s and just 24 50-over matches.

There was a nearly two-year period with very little ODI cricket played at all. Joe Root, the leading run-scorer in the 2019 World Cup, has batted only 12 times* in 50-over cricket since the 2019 final - just three innings per year.

It is interesting to note that of the 60 players in those four semi-final squads, it was the least experienced of them who was entrusted with the Super Over in the final. Jofra Archer had played only 18 List A matches before the start of that World Cup. But the route that he took to ODI success - honing his skills in T20, and to a lesser extent, first-class cricket, and then exploding into 50-over stardom at a World Cup - is one that many other players will likely follow in the 2023 tournament.

The general direction of travel in cricket for the past 30 years has been one of ever increasing levels of batting aggression and bowling defensiveness. Are we, for the first time, going to see a significant retrenchment? For the first time, players will arrive at a World Cup having spent the majority of their recent matches scoring at well over the rate that is sustainable over 50 overs.

T20 and ODI cricket are more closely related to each other than either is to Test cricket, but there are still significant differences between the two white-ball formats and the players who play each best.

Many of these key differences are related to the management of risk and scoring rate. In T20 cricket, a single is generally a win for the bowling team, as the scoring rate is generally well over 6 an over. In ODI cricket, a single is far more often a win for the batting side. T20 matches are in essence boundary-hitting contests, but in ODI cricket the relationship between singles and boundaries is more complex, and this leads to very different tactics and strategies as a result.

With batting aggression prized over defensiveness, players will arrive at this World Cup having scored at well over the rate usually sustainable in ODIs

With batting aggression prized over defensiveness, players will arrive at this World Cup having scored at well over the rate usually sustainable in ODIs © ECB via Getty Images

Another key difference is the effect that losing wickets has on teams' scoring rates. In both T20 and ODI cricket, taking wickets is one of the keys to controlling the opposition's scoring rate. However, the mechanism by which this happens is different in the two formats.

To understand, let's conduct a quick thought experiment. Imagine you are competing in a 50-lap car race. You know that your tyres are unlikely to last the whole race, and that at some point they will need to be changed. You don't know how long each of your tyres will last, but what you do know is that the faster you drive, the more likely it is that a tyre will give out and need to be replaced.

You only have four high-quality replacement tyres. When they are used up, you will have to rely on inferior tyres that won't let you drive.

How would you proceed in trying to record the fastest possible time in the race? You would probably set out at a moderate speed and then adjust how fast you went from then on by how many tyres you had left. If you lost two or three tyres in quick succession at the start of the race, you would slow down to protect your remaining good tyres.

If, on the other hand, your initial tyres were still going strong halfway through the race, then you would drive increasingly fast to take advantage of your now abundant resources. This self-regulation is similar to the way in which batting teams manage their risk levels during the course of an ODI innings so as to maximise their expected score.

Now imagine a 20-lap race under exactly the same conditions. The limited number of tyres is not the main concern. You are far less likely to run out of good tyres with a significant number of laps remaining. Now the main way in which losing a tyre slows you down is the time it takes to stop at the pits, change the tyre and get the car back up to speed again. So you now drive as quickly as you reasonably can throughout the race, and change your tyres as and when it is necessary.

This approach is much closer to how modern day T20 teams approach the management of risk across an innings. A batter's scoring rate is far more dependent on how long they have been at the crease than it is on how many wickets their team has lost. (There are extreme cases where multiple wickets fall in quick succession early in an innings, but they are the exception not the rule).

There is an old saying: "To a man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail." When cricketers had only red-ball skills, they applied them to limited-overs cricket. For the past couple of years, white-ball cricketers have been equipped mainly with a T20 skill set and mentality, and much of the ODI cricket played during that period has reflected that.

The effect that Dunning and Kruger described in their 1999 paper wasn't the inherent arrogance in the ignorant and deference in the knowledgeable that it is often portrayed as. It was the tendency of us all to have the sweet but slightly naïve view that everyone else is more like us than they actually are. Those who know little assume that most people are similarly unversed, and so place themselves closer to average than they actually are. Experts overestimate how much is known about their subject by the general population, and so similarly put themselves closer to the average person than is the case.

When first-class cricketers first started playing professional limited-overs cricket, they assumed that the optimum way to play looked more like first-class cricket than was actually the case. Players coming off a glut of T20 cricket will initially see ODI cricket as more like the 20-over format than it is.

Most teams are going to arrive at this World Cup with a lot less knowledge of where ODI cricket currently is, than they have had at every recent tournament. The winning team is likely to be the one that quickly and successfully overcomes this lack of understanding and finds the right balance of techniques and tactics for the situation.

England, among other teams, has dramatically altered their approach to ODI cricket

England, among other teams, has dramatically altered their approach to ODI cricket Alex Davidson / © Getty Images

India is a fantastic place for a World Cup. Not just for the crowds, the passion and the enthusiasm, but also because of the variety of tests it sets teams. Traditionally, people think of India as being the home of turning pitches. And there will be used pitches in Chennai and Lucknow where sides will pick three spinners and worry that that's not enough.

But there are also grounds where the seamers dominate. Eden Gardens and the Wankhede offer swing, seam and carry. Dharamsala on a cold morning can feel like England in April, with the new ball zipping everywhere and the medium-pacers dominant.

No country has a greater range of venues and conditions. No World Cup host country places such a premium on variety and balance when it comes to squad and team selection. Teams will have to flex and adapt their approach to each pitch and opponent, changing the balance of their team match by match, in a way that doesn't happen in most countries.

No one knows what the cricket at this tournament will look like, or how it will affect the ODI format going forward. But as has so often happened in the past, it is likely to change and/or define ODI cricket for years to come.

*Stats are current up to the end of August 2023

Senior Data scientist at the ECB, Nathan Leamon is the author of Hitting Against the Spin and the novel The Test