Ben Stokes played his last ODI game against South Africa on Tuesday. After the match, he was given a spectacular farewell. His sudden retirement came as a shock to many. Stokes, 31, is best remembered for his brilliant innings in the 2019 World Cup final against New Zealand. England World Cup hero Stokes was blunt when explaining his decision to withdraw from one-day internationals: “We’re not cars, you can’t just fill us up.”
But despite the 2019 World Cup winner’s departure from 50-over cricket, any meaningful reform of a match schedule that England Test captain Stokes has labeled “unsustainable” is unlikely.
Watch: Ben Stokes gets a smashing farewell
An inspiration. A legend. A champion.
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) July 19, 2022
International matches underpin a lucrative broadcasting contract the England and Wales Cricket Board has with Sky TV worth around £220 million ($264 million) a year and are the main sources of revenue for most of the sport’s leading countries.
Since the start of 2017, England has had nearly 500 scheduled cricket days, putting India in second place at 472.
To make matters worse, a knock-on effect of the coronavirus pandemic is that several delayed matches have been included in this year’s calendar.
Stokes dropped out of the ODI game on Tuesday following England’s defeat to South Africa at his home in Durham, a match in which the tired 31-year-old all-rounder took 0-44 and only managed to score five with the bat.
He will still play Tests and Twenty20 internationals. The game came halfway through a grueling England schedule of 12 white-ball games in 25 days this month, with the test team playing seven games in the 2022 home season.
Stokes, speaking before Tuesday’s game, told the BBC: “You want a product of the highest quality. You want the best players to play as much as possible, all the time.
“We’re not cars, you can’t just fill us up and then we’ll go out and be ready to fill up again.”
England captain Jos Buttler described his teammates’ retirement from ODIs as a “wake-up call”.
It has long been speculated that men’s ODIs will eventually be squeezed out by the financial pull of rival formats.
Still, 50-over World Cups are scheduled for 2023, 2027 and 2031, as well as two Champions Trophy tournaments, in 2025 and 2029. Bilateral ODI series appear to be more at risk.
South Africa have withdrawn from a scheduled series against Australia in January – risking their qualification for next year’s World Cup in India – as it will clash with a new domestic T20 tournament. Cricketers in earlier eras withdrew from all international cricket at the same time, but the kind of exit being announced by Stokes is becoming more common.
The lucrative Indian Premier League and other franchise T20 leagues mean that many top cricketers are less dependent on the national service for their income.
England’s greats James Anderson and Stuart Broad, the two leading Test wicket-takers of all time, have both long since retired from white-ball cricket to extend their careers in the five-day format, with star batsman Joe Root no longer playing T20 internationals.
Indian Virat Kohli has remained a cricketer in all formats, but he has not had an international hundred since 2019. “You don’t want to dilute the product,” said former England Test captain Root in response to good friend Stokes’ retirement with ODI. “You want to see the best of the best against the best as often as possible.”
Still, administrators have shown reluctance to cut back on the number of money-making fixtures. Last year, for example, England had to put together a brand new 18-man squad, nine of whom had never played an ODI before, just days before a series against Pakistan due to a Covid outbreak and still won 3-0.
Tickets for international matches in England are generally sold out well in advance and long before the team composition is known.
Will spectators stay away if they know Stokes and other top stars aren’t playing? And will officials reduce the workload to make such absences less likely?
Former England captain Michael Atherton is skeptical about whether change is on the way, saying administrators are only concerned with “chopping as much cricket into the calendar as possible for as much money as possible”.
He wrote in the Times: “Perhaps Stokes’ abrupt retirement from 50-over cricket a year away from a World Cup could be a moment for them to reconsider. Don’t hold your breath.”
With AFP inputs