The decision from Ben Stokes, one of cricket’s most versatile and damaging white-ball players, to withdraw from the ODI format at 31 should serve as a wake-up call for the sport’s administrators.
The cricket calendar is oversaturated and driven by greed — it’s unsustainable for multi-format players, particularly all-rounders.
But the sport’s governing bodies have made their priorities abundantly clear.
Those priorities are to ensure The Hundred and Indian Premier League are granted exclusive windows in the calendar while international fixtures have been crammed into whatever small vacancies still exist.
It’s quickly becoming untenable for cricketers from India, England and Australia, and the 50-over format is slowly losing its credibility.
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On Monday, Stokes announced that Tuesday’s ODI against South Africa at Chester-le-Street would be his last, offering some strongly-worded criticism for his employers.
“Three formats are just unsustainable for me now,” he wrote on Instagram.
“Not only do I feel that my body is letting me down because of the schedule and what is expected of us, but I also feel that I am taking the place of another player who can give Jos (Buttler) and the rest of the team their all.”
Stokes’ parting shot was primarily directed at the ECB, who ticked off a fixture list that interim head coach Paul Collingwood described earlier this year as “horrific.”
This summer, the England men’s international season is 103 days from start to finish, with matches scheduled on 50 of them. England’s recent three-match ODI series against Amsterdam overlapped with a home Test series against New Zealand, forcing the Poms to name two separate squads.
Between June 2022 and March 2023, England is scheduled to play 12 Tests, 18 ODIs, 19 bilateral T20Is and a T20 World Cup – over 100 days of international cricket.
During those 10 months, England will tour Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Bangladesh.
Former England captain Mike Atherton lamented in The Times: “Being an all-rounder in modern cricket across three formats is the most punishing role of all, in a schedule that is totally unrelenting and ridiculous.”
Stokes drew a line in the sand this week, choosing to prioritize the other two formats and, more importantly, his health and happiness.
And he won’t be the last to do so.
“We’re not cars when you can just fill up with petrol or diesel,” he dejectedly told Sky Sports on Tuesday.
It’s a massive loss for England and newly-appointed one-day coach Matthew Mott — Stokes has averaged 47.08 with the bat in ODI cricket since 2015. Ricky Ponting’s ODI batting average was 42.03, while Sachin Tendulkar’s was 44.83.
He was named Player of the 2019 World Cup final, scoring an unbeaten 84 against New Zealand to force a Super Over at Lord’s, a moment that cemented his place in cricket folklore.
Stokes is a fierce competitor, determined to give his all whenever donning England colours, but his mind and body have limits — he stepped away from cricket for four months last year citing mental health concerns, a decision that rejuvenated his love for the game.
The Durham all-rounder also rejected high-paying contracts with the Indian Premier League and The Hundred.
But even the lure of defending England’s world title at next year’s World Cup campaign in India wasn’t enough to encourage Stokes to commit anymore of his time and energy to 50-over cricket. As a result, one of cricket’s most recognizable players wo n’t feature in the sport’s marquee tournament, despite still being in his prime.
The decision to remove James Anderson and Stuart Broad from white-ball cricket after the 2015 World Cup was a masterstroke, undoubtedly helping prolong their Test careers — several of their comrades may be forced to follow suit.
“I’ve got to look after my body, because I want to play as long as I possibly can,” Stokes told Sky Sports.
“I want to play 150 Test matches for England … hopefully when I’m 36 and still playing Test cricket, I can look back on this decision and say, ‘I’m very happy with the decision I’ve made.’”
Australia’s high-profile cricketers are also starting to question whether they can commit to all three formats, and understandably so.
Over the next 18 months, Australia will defend their T20 World Cup on home soil, host the West Indies and South Africa for five Tests, tour India for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, fight for the Ashes in England and tour South Africa before returning to India for the World Cup — that’s without even mentioning IPL, Big Bash League and Sheffield Shield commitments.
Because of this relentless schedule, restricting multi-format players for ODI cricket has not only become a necessity, but a formality.
The Australian men’s side has played 17 ODIs since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, yet Steve Smith, the country’s best batter in a generation, had only featured in five of them. Mitchell Starc, Australia’s most successful white-ball bowler since Glenn McGrath, played just eight.
Earlier this week, Cricket Australia announced that Test captain Pat Cummins had not been selected for the upcoming ODI fixtures against Zimbabwe and New Zealand because he was “being managed through a period of rehabilitation and physical preparation for the upcoming summer”.
Cummins’ omission wasn’t the surprising part of this announcement — Australia fielding a near full-strength team for a bilateral ODI series has been a rarity since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But of course, the prioritisation of domestic T20 tournaments has accelerated the sad downfall of ODI cricket.
Last week, South Africa officially withdrew from January’s bilateral ODI series against Australia to avoid coinciding with the inaugural season of its newly-introduced privately-owned T20 tournament.
Cricket South Africa was willing to sacrifice the national team’s automatic qualification into the World Cup to ensure its players were available for an unnamed domestic competition.
South African administrators offered four alternative dates for the three-match ODI series, but CA was unable to reschedule because of “the congested international schedule”.
The Covid-19 pandemic has undeniably contributed to the marginalization of one-day cricket because it’s the easiest format to squeeze out of the calendar. After three matches against New Zealand were postponed due to travel restrictions last season, Australia did not host any men’s ODI fixtures in a home summer for the first time in 44 years.
But pundits were questioning the future of ODI cricket well before the epidemic — Indian spinner Ravichandran Ashwin recently admitted he turns off the TV when ODIs are on, arguing they have lost their relevance.
ICC events will survive, but Stokes’ retirement marks a significant moment in the history of ODI cricket. The death of the bilateral one-day international series may arrive sooner than we anticipated.