As South Africa unleashes a confusing new three-team version of cricket on the world, it’s time to settle once and for all: which cricket format is the best?
This article was first published in June 2020
Cricket is a sport steeped in tradition. One of the proudest cricketing traditions calls for purists to express outrage any time a new format of the game is invented.
Critics shook their heads in dismay at the arrival of Twenty20 in the early 2000s, just as many of their predecessors did when one-day cricket was introduced in the 1970s. You can bet there would have been some jolly angry telegrams sent when a five-day time limit was formally imposed on test matches following the end of the second world war. In each of these instances, the new format would eventually come to be accepted as vital to the many-headed hydra of cricket.
This month, Cricket South Africa unveiled what may be the most radical reinvention of the game yet: three-team cricket, or 3TC. These are the rules:
This set of rules appears to have been modelled on a famous joke tweet by the American sports writer Jon Bois:
As someone raised on a diet of one-dayers and who embraced the T20 format with open arms, the arrival of 3TC represents a watershed moment for me. While the format’s inventors are confident its confusing rules will attract legions of new fans to the sport, my initial reaction was that this is an unnecessary innovation and a stupid idea – the exact same outrage my cricket-loving forebears felt when other shortened forms of the game were announced.
The inaugural game of 3TC was scheduled to be played in Centurion on June 27, with the Eagles, the Kingfishers and the Kites playing each other all at once for the Solidarity Cup. It has since been postponed indefinitely for what appear to be logistical and possibly Covid-19 related reasons.
While we wait to find out what cricket’s bold new frontier looks like in practice, let’s see where it ranks against the many other forms of (televised) cricket that already exist, based on a combination of criteria like excitement, entertainment, efficiency, intensity and the all-important “X-factor”.
10. Indoor cricket
Easily the most niggly and aggro form of the game, indoor cricket should be a more popular spectator sport than it is. Unfortunately the fact that it’s played under fluorescent lights inside a big net makes it a difficult turd to polish from a broadcast perspective. If you could find a way around that obstacle, the format has plenty going for it. Indoor cricket’s best innovation is deducting five runs from a partnership’s total for every dismissal, which brings the humiliating possibility of a negative score into play.
9. Hong Kong Sixes
Played on an astroturf pitch at the oddly-dimensioned Kowloon Cricket Club, the Hong Kong Sixes cricket tournaments of the 1990s were cricket’s much less successful answer to the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament. Teams of six batted for five overs each, with everyone except the wicketkeeper having to bowl an over. The fact there were only four outfielders obviously resulted in a lot of boundaries, which was a novelty back in the days when four and sixes were still relatively rare and exciting commodities. But the real novelty was getting to see the bowling actions of batsmen who didn’t normally bowl.
8. The Hundred
The result of some big brains at the England and Wales Cricket Board deciding Twenty20 wasn’t fast-paced or exciting enough, The Hundred is a new format where each innings lasts 100 balls – a full 20 balls fewer than a fuddy duddy old Twenty20 innings. The Hundred, which was set to begin this year before Covid-19 ruined everything, also reinvents the concept of the “over”, with bowlers instead delivering either five or 10 balls in a row, up to a maximum of 20 balls per game. The fielding side “swaps ends” every ten balls. “The Hundred will help cricket to reach more people,” a man from the ECB said vaguely when the format was announced.
The T10 format doesn’t bring anything new to the table – it’s just Twenty20 cut in half. While this may not serve existing cricket fans well, it seems to be a good format for cricket-indifferent countries where even the prospect of 40 overs is a bit much. The European Cricket League started in 2019 with teams from across continental Europe and Scandinavia, and has already provided the sport with one bona fide cult hero in unconventional Romanian bowler Pavel Florin.
Maybe it’s narrow-minded to think of three-team sporting matches as a bad idea – what if it’s actually the future. Will we one day watch Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich play each other on a triangular football pitch? Could the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks one day compete for the Tri-Nations in a match with two balls and a holographic Paddy O’Brien controlling the ruck and maul? The more I think about it, the more I’m in favour of 3TC – cricket is an inherently confusing sport, and any format that manages to make it even more confusing should be embraced by fans, not shunned.
One of the earliest and most radical reinventions of the sport, kilikiti is the result of English missionaries’ attempts to introduce cricket to Samoa in the 19th century. They took what was at that stage still a very dryballs sport and made it better in just about every way, from bigger bats to larger, more diverse and inclusive teams. In 2001 Auckland hosted a Kilikiti World Cup, won by the New Zealand KBlacks.
The first men’s Twenty20 international was played between New Zealand and Australia at Eden Park in 2005. Both teams wore retro 80s uniforms, Hamish Marshall sported an afro and Glen McGrath was given a red card by umpire Billy Bowden for bowling a ball underarm. In fifteen years T20 has gone from a joke to arguably the most dominant form of the game, and certainly the most lucrative. Even the most insufferable cricket purists must now concede that it’s fun and exciting to watch, with its own distinct strategies and tactics to set it apart from other forms of the game.
On one hand, a bad one-dayer is worse than the worst T20 match. On the other, a good one-dayer will always be better than the best T20. There will never in a hundred years be a T20 game as good as last year’s World Cup final, and that’s a fact. On balance, they’re probably about equal.
2. Test match
One of the most dramatic moments in New Zealand’s test match history came at the end of the 5th day of a drawn match in which a win for either side was completely out of the question. Martin Crowe’s dismissal for 299 against Sri Lanka in 1991 highlights the magic and beauty of cricket’s original and longest format. The test match is an open world in which almost anything is possible. A single batsman can score 400. A whole team can be bowled out for 26. Games can be finished in under two days, or remain unfinished after five. This is cricket in its purest, most parameter-free form.
1. Cricket Max
Martin Crowe bestowed his greatest gift to cricket in 1996, the same year he retired from the sport. His original vision for Cricket Max included a fourth stump as a gift to bowlers, and two double-scoring Max Zones at each end of the ground as a gift to batters. Games had the two-innings per team structure of a test match condensed into the timeframe of T20, a format which wouldn’t be invented for another seven years.
The first Cricket Max game was an exhibition match played at Cornwall Park in Auckland. Some of the players wore shorts. Lance Cairns wound back the clock with a series of enormous sixes. Young Black Cap Dion Nash hit the retired cricket legend Sir Richard Hadlee in the head with a bouncer.
Cricket Max became a fixture of the domestic game in the years that followed, though some of its more radical rules were reigned in. The fourth stump was removed. After a promising start, public interest in the new format waned, and it was abandoned by the early-2000s.
The world was not ready for Cricket Max. When he invented it, Martin Crowe effectively skipped a step in the evolution of cricket. He was a man ahead of his time, a visionary and a genius. In the post-T20 landscape, Cricket Max now makes perfect sense.
Some of its original rules – a free hit following a no ball, for example – have since been incorporated into other forms of the game. While players in 1996 may have struggled to adapt to the new format, the modern T20 skill set is perfectly aligned to Crowe’s vision.
We do not need to invent any new cricket formats, because the perfect one already exists. It has been waiting for the world to catch up for almost 25 years. The time has finally come to bring back Cricket Max.