ODIs must find relevance between World Cups or risk tournament dying

Pakistan's Hasan Ali is caught sweeping
India's meetings with Pakistan at the Cricket World Cup will always be meaningful but the tournament itself is in danger of fading from relevance - REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

It was the final that organisers craved, lacking only the denouement a nation demanded: Rohit Sharma lifting the 13th ODI World Cup. Yet the World Cup was still the most-watched event in cricket history, staged in the sport’s sporting and economic behemoth. For players, it remains the game’s most coveted prize, as Pat Cummins can now attest. “That’s the pinnacle in cricket, winning a World Cup,” Australia’s victorious captain declared.

Before a thrilling final week – three contrasting knockout matches that showed the full scope of 50-over cricket – a certain existential angst about the future of the format has been inescapable. Crowds for neutral matches in the early stages of the tournament were underwhelming, though they picked up notably. There were a striking lack of close matches. And so, against the backdrop of Twenty20 soaring, those on the periphery of the event even asked: is this the last ODI World Cup?

It is highly unlikely to be. The next two editions of the ODI World Cup have already been confirmed for 2027 and 2031. While India winning would have been a fillip to the 50-over format, their brilliant run of 10 consecutive victories ending in the final creates an almost equalling compelling narrative – of India’s quest for a third ODI World Cup continuing.

Yet the speculation – about switching to 40 overs, or even abandoning the one-day format altogether – speaks to uncertainty about how the 50-over format fits in with cricket’s saturated landscape.

‘It takes one day’ was the slogan for the 13th World Cup. To which some have joked: that’s the problem.

ICC commentators
Broadcasters are increasingly worried about an atrophying format - Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

“It’s very hard to see much excitement or growth ahead of 2027,” says one senior figure in cricket broadcasting. “There is no way many kids want to watch 100 overs either in the ground or on TV.”

In an age of diminished attention spans, 50-over cricket occupies a curious position. For all the format’s range, it neither possesses the brevity of T20 – or its even shorter cousins – nor the multi-layered tapestry of a Test match. While viewing figures in India for this World Cup have been excellent, insiders report that enthusiasm among older fans has not been mirrored by teenagers and those in their early 20s.

Switching ODIs to 40 overs would be an attempt to galvanise the one-day game. The 40-over format was more popular than the longer one-day game when played in county cricket. One representative says that, if the ICC cricket committee advocated such a switch, he would consider supporting it. “If the cricket committee say that players and fans are saying 40 overs is better for them – slightly shorter, probably get closer games, but it’s still long enough for players to get proper hundreds, I’d be open to changing.”

Yet broadcasters emphasise that those put off by the 50-over game’s length are unlikely to be enthralled by a 40-over one either. “You need to change the DNA of the game. It won’t be solved by shortening it,” says an Indian broadcasting insider.

Another Full Member source laments slow over rates, which means that ODIs can extend beyond eight hours: “We need to be quite tight on the timings. We need to think out of the box.”

India crowd
While the final was not played before the biggest crowd in the tournament's history, the global TV audience dwarfed its predecessors - Matthew Lewis/ICC via Getty Images

In a sense, the problems facing this World Cup reflect altogether greater issues facing the 50-over format. The 10 teams playing in this World Cup played only 277 ODIs this four-year cycle, compared with 431 between the 2015-19 tournaments. When they do play, sides are almost invariably understrength, with stars resting, or playing in franchise leagues instead. How can the ODI World Cup remain the pinnacle if it is in a format that teams barely play?

“The ICC events all have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and every game counts for something,” says Tom Moffat, the executive of Fica, the global players’ union. He draws an uncomfortable contrast with bilateral ODIs. “There is increasingly strong player feedback that international cricket scheduling should not just be based on filling up the calendar, and there is a need to ensure that matches have context and meaning, irrespective of the format.”

In most countries, broadcasting rights for white-ball bilateral cricket are declining, with fans reacting to what has long been apparent: the games matter little. England playing Ireland on Sept 26, only nine days before their World Cup opener, embodies the sense of cricket’s market being saturated.

The ICC has taken steps to imbue bilateral ODIs with more context. Or, at least, it had. The World Cup Super League, which launched in 2020, gave the 13 competing nations 24 ODIs each, which determined World Cup qualification. The performances of Afghanistan and Netherlands in the World Cup attest to the Super League’s value. Yet the competition has been abolished; in its place, bilateral ODIs have the feel of glorified friendlies. Some hope that the Super League could yet be revived in future – but it will require the biggest nations to agree.

Joe Denly pulls the ball during England's match against South Africa at the Wanderers in 2020
Bilateral ODIs are struggling to find a slot on the calendar and an audience - Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

While T20 is the sport’s greatest globalising tool, there is no appetite among leading Associate nations to abandon ODIs. “Getting rid of ODIs would be a mistake,” says Kyle Coetzer, the former Scotland captain who sits on the ICC cricket committee. “ODI cricket is the pinnacle that most Associate teams can play in.”

From 2027, Associates will have more chance of reaching this World Cup. The tournament will revert from 10 countries to 14, which will mean a pithier first stage, with six games per team rather than nine. The upshot should be a competition with more variety, more early jeopardy and – it is hoped – more days with two games played.

Under the broadcasting agreement for the 2024-31 rights cycle, there will be a men’s event every year. So scrapping ODIs would mean more international T20 events instead.

Hypothetically, if the ODI World Cup and Champions Trophy were cancelled, they could be replaced by a T20 Champions Trophy – which would be played in odd years, with the T20 World Cup in even years. While the events would be differentiated – the T20 World Cup now features 20 teams, and a Champions Trophy could include six to eight – the risk of fatigue about global T20 tournaments would be acute. This is heightened by T20’s inclusion in the Olympics from 2028; if T20 became the only white-ball international cricket, there would now be five T20 global events every four years. “A diet of non-stop T20s might not be much fun,” observes one Full Member representative.

“Removing ODIs would destroy significant economic value,” says Kevin Alavy, global managing director from at Futures Sport & Entertainment, a leading sports media consultancy.

“I’m not convinced that there’s demand for even more T20 franchise cricket, as opposed to the more varied diet that ODIs offer. The big issue to me is the sheer volume of cricket that exists.  Fans only have so much capacity to pay attention.”

The worries about the future of ODIs, then, are a microcosm of much broader issues in the game: the overcrowded schedule, and the uncertainty over how international and franchise cricket can co-exist.

The ODI World Cup “may survive until 2031 – but it’s hard to see beyond that,” says one broadcasting insider. “The sport will be hugely different by then.”