Tsunami appeal games, official ODIs or not?

Everyone involved in the organisation of January 10’s game at the MCG between an ICC World XI and an Asian Cricket Council XI should be commended for their efforts in putting the event together at short notice following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of December 26. More than 14 million dollars Australian was raised for the World Vision Tsunami Appeal that day in front of a packed house and many millions of television viewers.

Also to be congratulated are New Zealand Cricket and the Federation of International Cricketers Associations for organising a series of one-day matches to raise funds for the same appeal, replacing in part the Sri Lankan tour abandoned following the disaster. As I write this, the opening game between New Zealand and the FICA XI is under way at Jade Stadium, Christchurch, although the international side is 39 for 4 after 12 overs, with Jonty Rhodes out of retirement and at the crease.

The ICC Executive Board decided that the MCG game on January 10 was an “official one-day international”, as will the return Asia-ROW game in India next month, due to the “exceptional circumstances” surrounding the organising of the game. The NZ v FICA XI games, however, are not given full international status. Why?

More to the point, why are any of these games being called “official internationals”? The decision sent shockwaves through cricket’s statistical community. The doyen of cricket statisticians and bearded wonder, Bill Frindall, sent a letter of complaint to the ICC which was reported in The Times on January 8.

The committee of the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians will be discussing, at its next meeting on January 29, its classification of the January 10 game. As a member of the ACS, I have forwarded to the committee my thoughts on the matter. This is what I had to say in my email, which I sent to them on Thursday:

In 1897, the General Assembly of the Indiana State Legislature unanimously proposed a bill that would have fixed the value of pi at 3.2. In 2005, the Executive Board of the International Cricket Council announced that an invitational charity game between two “dream team” elevens was an official One-Day International.

In both cases, the main underlying motive was money. But while the ICC had noble intentions – to increase the revenue for the Indian Ocean tsunami appeal by improving the game’s marketability – that does not alter the fact that their decision, like that of the Indiana Legislature in 1897, flies in the face of logic and commonsense.

Conventional thinking is that a one-day international should be a game between two nations (deeming the West Indies, as a singular member entity of the ICC, to be a “nation”). The concept of making a game between an “Asian Cricket Council XI” and an “ICC World XI” challenges that thinking. But what justification can be given to applying “Official ODI” status to the game played at the MCG on January 10, 2005?

The teams taking part were not truly representative in nature. Players from South Africa and Zimbabwe were unavailable, and the only Englishman available was one who had retired from Test cricket (Darren Gough). For Asia, Bangladesh was represented by a player who was not good enough to make their Test team!

Even with the barriers precluding the selection of truly representative elevens, the teams were still of a very high standard. Is that, in itself, enough to deem the game of full international level? I do not think so. It would be like FIFA declaring a game between Real Madrid and Arsenal to be a full international because the standard of play is better than, say, a World Cup qualifier between Mongolia and Nepal.

A further matter to consider is the discretionary nature of the ICC Executive’s decision to grant the game official ODI status. The explanation given by Ehsan Mani in the ICC press release of January 7 is bewildering:
“The ICC Board is of the view that due to the extraordinary circumstances that have brought about these two matches an exception to the existing rules should be made. This decision applies only to these two matches and does not change the status of other one-day matches from the past or in the future.”

What are we to make of this? Why just these two games? Why not the New Zealand v FICA XI games being played this month in aid of the same cause? Why not, retrospectively, the Asia v Rest of the World game from the ICC’s first and only annual Cricket Week in 2000? Or are we to infer from Mani’s comments that the status of future charity games will be determined by the severity of the disaster?

It could be said that we should accept the ICC’s ruling, whether we like it or not, move on and hope it never happens again. Can you imagine if that bill in Indiana had been proclaimed as law? Picture all those motorists trying to drive around Indianapolis on wheels with circumferences 3.2 times their diameter. An absurd decision is an absurd decision is an absurd decision.

It may feel a bit unseemly to stage a debate such as this as the indirect result of a massive natural disaster such as the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of December 26. Nothing in this discussion is intended to trivialise the loss of more than 200,000 lives and the loss of homes or livelihood of several million others.

But the recording of history and statistics needs to remain an objective, focused activity. Governments cannot change the laws of mathematics for commercial gain, nor should sporting bodies be able to redefine the dictionary for marketing reasons, however charitable.

The Tsunami Appeal game of January 10 was a highly entertaining spectacle and an extraordinary fund-raiser for World Vision. And it should go into the record books for what it is – a non-ODI “List A” limited-over match.

High-profile Indian statistician and fellow ACS member Rajneesh Gupta has also commented on the situation and posted a copy to his blog. Wisden CricInfo assistant editor and an old workmate of mine Anand Vasu has also made comment on his personal blog. Meanwhile Wisden CricInfo, who have a strong business relationship with the ICC, has failed to report on the statistical controversy at all.

Personally I feel quite uncomfortable entering into this debate so soon after the absolutely enormous tragedy that we are raising funds to alleviate, but the controversy is at large and it needs cool heads to bring it back into perspective and under control.

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