This assumption gains strength when one assesses the numbers. The sides that have taken the most wickets in the group stage—India (60) and New Zealand (57)—are also the ones with the lowest economy rates in the tournament, 4.71 and 4.56 respectively.
Before the 2011 World Cup was held in the Indian subcontinent, a strange fear took hold of casual and serious cricket observers alike. Faced with the usually benign pitches of the region, many were quick to offer doomsday predictions for bowlers.
In the end, only 13 times did a team cross 300 while batting first in the tournament. Contrast this with this year’s numbers — we have already had 20 instances of a side scoring above 300 when batting first; thrice, the total even crossed the 400-run boundary.
The conditions, sometimes quite obviously, changed across venues. The pitches in Dhaka and Chittagong were remarkably slower in comparison to the strips in Bengaluru. In the latter, England tied with India after the host scored 338 while Ireland shocked the English by chasing 328 down three days later.
In all, none of the fears were realised. It wasn’t a bowler’s paradise but neither did it need to be. Most objective observers claimed that it was one of the most entertaining World Cup tournaments.
Four years later, we find ourselves in a tournament that has been a batsman’s paradise. Many factors have contributed to it — truer wickets partly as a result of drop-in pitches, the latest fielding restrictions and two new balls, to name a few. The fielding restriction that allows only four fielders outside the 30-yard circle during non-powerplay overs, though, has had the most profound effect on batting.
Not only does it embolden batsmen to clear the boundary, it simply gives them more areas to score. The part-timer, the ambiguously loved figure in cricket, faces a risk to his existence in the 50-over format. No longer can sides afford to get him to bowl 10 overs. A general lack of control in bowling costs much more than before; quite a few captains have acknowledged this.
Hence, with sides finding greater avenues to score, the World Cup will be won by the team with the best bowlers. A unit geared to take wickets will enjoy better results; it has been often seen at the ongoing tournament that teams prefer to keep wickets for the last 15 overs, even if it comes at a cost to run-scoring. Hurt the opposition with wickets and you stand to concede less runs. This age-old cricketing adage rings very true now.
This assumption gains strength when one assesses the numbers. The sides that have taken the most wickets in the group stage — India (60) and New Zealand (57) — are also the ones with the lowest economy rates in the tournament, 4.71 and 4.56 respectively. In fact, they are the only teams that have not conceded at least five runs per over.
In terms of the spread of wickets in a side — among the teams in the quarterfinals — no outfit in the quarterfinals has had more wicket-takers than West Indies (10). In fact, in the playing eleven, the Caribbean side has fielded eight players who have picked up a wicket in this tournament.
This, however, is essentially a red herring. The presence of various wicket-takers has little to do with claiming wickets — India has dismissed 13 batsmen more than West Indies despite fielding only six bowlers, who picked up a wicket, in the playing eleven. The presence of bowlers who possess the ability to gain multiple rewards is more crucial.
A look at the list of top wicket-takers over the past month, hence, is educative. If we were to only consider the top 15 among the quarterfinalists — apologies to Josh Davey, Shapoor Zadran and Tendai Chatara — four spots each are taken by India (Mohammed Shami, R. Ashwin, Mohit Sharma and Umesh Yadav) and New Zealand (Trent Boult, Daniel Vettori, Tim Southee and Corey Anderson). Pakistan (Wahab Riaz and Sohail Khan) and South Africa (Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir) claim a couple of places while Australia (Mitchell Starc) and Sri Lanka (Lasith Malinga) have a spot less.
It’s obvious why India and New Zealand won all their matches. Their bowlers have shared their returns with at least one of them stepping up to the plate when required.
Australia’s case is peculiar, though. It could have nearly won five out of five matches (the encounter against Bangladesh was washed out) but only Starc finds a place in the top 15. Mitchell Johnson is next with nine wickets, seven less than the other Mitchell. The left-arm pace duo is followed by Mitchell Marsh and Pat Cummins with five scalps each. While Marsh took all his wickets against England in the tournament opener, it’s interesting to note that neither he nor Cummins are regular starters. Starc will need more support in the knockouts; James Faulkner may help him out, as he did against Sri Lanka.
South Africa has a problem of a somewhat different nature. Its premier bowler Dale Steyn has yet to find his best form too. Fortunately for AB de Villiers, Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir have been largely reliable. But there’s no doubt that South Africa will need Steyn to fire if it has break its World Cup jinx.
However, even an in-form Steyn may not be able to rescue the Proteas. The lack of a reliable fifth bowler has been pretty evident; consequently, de Villiers has bowled in no less than three innings. With Jean-Paul Duminy ceasing to be a factor in the Antipodes, SA can’t take this problem lightly. Playing another specialist bowler is an option but the experiment must have left de Villiers scarred after it backfired spectacularly against India.
This quartet aside, the rest of the sides look ill-equipped to make a serious claim for the title. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh’s bowling resources are conspicuously short. Pakistan has found a way to make its pacers tick but defeating the host in Adelaide could prove to be an insurmountable task. West Indies has a reborn Jerome Taylor at its disposal but nothing else. Each of these sides will need to punch above its weight to win its quarterfinal.
That’s not to say that the quarterfinals will fail to provide a contest; the South Africa-Sri Lanka match on Wednesday looks particularly promising. But the trends from the group stage suggest that only those bowlers who produce top-notch performances will survive. The knockout contests are again expected to be played on pitches that will curry favour with the batsmen. The margin of error for the bowlers, as they often say, is very little.
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