Over the course of the next week, India will be featuring in three ODIs against Zimbabwe in Harare. It's a bilateral series that's been squeezed into the calendar between the West Indies series and the Asia Cup to make up for the cancellation of the tour in August 2020 due to the Covid pandemic. Unless something remarkable transpires, the series is likely to be forgotten almost as soon as it gets over though – reflective of the modern-day environment where most bilateral contests have little recall value.
At a time when the viability of the 50-over format is increasingly up for debate, the need of the hour then is clearly more meaningful matches while taking the workloads of players also into consideration. Especially when it comes to accommodating weaker teams like Zimbabwe, one way to achieve that objective would be to incorporate them in triangular tournaments. From 2000 to 2010, India played Zimbabwe 10 times in bilateral ODIs and 12 times in triangular ODIs. The last time that India and Zimbabwe were part of a tri-series was in June 2010 with Sri Lanka as the third team. Significantly, India lost to the Zimbabweans twice in the group stage and failed to make the final. Since 2011, India have won each of the 11 ODIs against Zimbabwe, earning mundane bilateral series wins without breaking a sweat.
India's scheduling history against Zimbabwe is indicative of a larger trend where triangular or quadrangular tournaments have almost come to a complete halt. India played in these tournaments every year from 2000 to 2010 barring 2007, appearing in a total of 121 matches. The figures from the last decade make for stark reading: since 2011, they have featured in just 20 matches as part of tri-series or four-team events. From a global perspective, there were 439 multi-team (three or four teams) ODIs from 2000 to 2010 as opposed to just 96 since 2011. Even Australia, who used to play a tri-nation tournament in their home season every year, have stopped scheduling these matches.
Of course, the mushrooming of T20 leagues and the addition of international T20s have shrunk the space in the calendar for ODIs. But instead of India playing West Indies and Zimbabwe in separate bilateral series within a couple of weeks, for instance, a tri-series involving these teams could have possibly opened up room in the calendar and offered the players some breathing space.
India skipper Rohit Sharma espoused the return of more tri-nation meets during a media interaction last month. "The scheduling has to be done with some space as well. There was a time when we were kids and I watched a lot of tri-series or quadrangular series, but that has completely stopped. I think that can be a way forward so that there is enough time for a team to recover and get back," Rohit said.
Financial considerations, however, mean that the BCCI may not be too keen to host a tri-series. That a non-India match isn't going to make anywhere near as much money as an India game is a big factor in the calculations. The broadcaster also stands to lose from televising a game where the hosts are absent.
"The ability to schedule a quadrangular event is not available to members, but tri-series is. But at this point, they are not easy to schedule, getting a number of countries at one place at one time given the constraints in the calendar. They are not as easy to schedule in Future Tours Programme (FTP) as it used to be in the years gone by," International Cricket Council (ICC) CEO Geoff Allardice told reporters recently.
From a cricketing standpoint, tri-nation meets have tended to produce some of the more memorable matches over the years. In India's case, their Natwest Trophy win in England in 2002 and the Commonwealth Bank series triumph in Australia in 2007/08 remain etched in everyone's minds largely because the heroic deeds of the team came in the finals. Even in more recent times, MS Dhoni's last-over exploits against Sri Lanka in 2013 – he smashed two sixes and a four when India needed 15 from the final over with a wicket remaining – came in a tri-series final involving West Indies.
The greater recall value of these matches aside, it might help India overcome their Achilles heel of faltering in big games at ICC events recently. Their record in bilateral cricket of late is faultless – they have won 109 out of 178 games since winning the 2011 World Cup – but it hasn't translated into trophies.
The pressure of playing in a tri-series final or having to earn a shot at the final can certainly go a long way towards India being better equipped in this regard. There's also the challenge of having to prepare for more than one team in tri-nation or quadrangular events rather than getting accustomed to the ebbs and flows of playing the same opponent. Just consider a scenario where you are having to deal with the threats posed by the Australian and New Zealand bowling attacks in alternate games. India's last tri-series was just before the 2015 World Cup and not particularly memorable – they didn't win a single game as hosts Australia and England cruised to the final – but such series are arguably of far greater value than a run-of-the-mill bilateral contest.