Want to have a ball at the World Cup? Bat for low-scoring humdingers

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It’s good to see that despite trends and projections that World Cup 2019 would be stuffed with high-scoring one-sided games on batsmen-friendly pitches, the tournament has produced some classic clashes that turn the clock back with their evenly matched contests.

The nervous encounter between India and Afghanistan at The Hampshire Bowl showed that Davids and Goliaths are never all that far apart, and that’s good for the game. | Getty Images

Let's put the narrative out early.

After 26 completed games in the World Cup, there were 12 totals greater than 300 batting first and 11 between 200 to 300. But aside from two matches — Pakistan defending 348 against England and South Africa nearly chasing down Bangladesh’s 330 — the rest of the games with 300+ targets have been drab one-sided affairs. Only one of those 12 matches resulted in the chasing team gunning down the target.

 

Does the chart scream out the ODI cricket cliché “put up 300 and you win”? Still look at the 200-299 segment, which has produced some humdingers so far in the tournament, particularly in the last week. The same group of people who groaned and moaned at the washed-out matches have returned to hook themselves to their TV sets.

Bangladesh nearly defending a mid-200 total against New Zealand, Australia holding themselves together against the Windies, Sri Lanka reigning over England in a low-scoring thriller, Afghanistan giving India a run for their money and Carlos Brathwaite waking West Indies up from the dead to give New Zealand a scare — the thrillers from the global tournament has had cricket fans on the edge of their seats watching chases of what are middling totals by modern standards.

Before the start of World Cup 2019, there were murmurs of the 500-run mark being breached this tournament. The pitches in England enabled the kind of batting England’s ODI side has mastered since the last World Cup. 300-plus totals had become so common (if not commonplace) that in the beginning of May, England and Pakistan played out a series where seven scores of 300 or more were made out of its 10 inningses. The printed scorecards for the World Cup even had a column to mark 500-run totals.

The bottomline in bold and caps was “THIS WILL BE A BATSMAN'S WORLD CUP”.

Yet, half-way through the World Cup, and despite a drab week where rain took centre stage, the marquee event has produced some extraordinary games where bowlers have have called the shots. Importantly, it has ridiculed the biased, T20-age notion that good games of cricket are those in which the stands are showered with sixers. Assuming fans throng stadiums hoping to watch competitive games of cricket, the World Cup has done well to fulfil that demand over the last week.

 

 

With pitches slowing down and offering something for both batsmen and bowlers, the on-field strategies and tug of war in the middle overs have made for engaging viewing.

New Zealand’s close five-run win against the West Indies at Old Trafford on Saturday exemplifies everything that has gone right in the past week in the World Cup. In a collapse reminiscent of its 1996 World Cup semi-final against Australia, the West Indies threw away the game from a position of strength before Carlos Brathwaite single-handedly took them to the cusp of an incredible win. But a shot away from glory, he was caught in the deep with Ian Bishop’s thundering soundbite in the background echoing in the ears of cricket fans even now.

Earlier that night, Afghanistan, the 10th-ranked team in the format coming into this World Cup, tested India, one of the tournament favorites, in a classic encounter that deserved the label of ‘match of the tournament’. A 224:213 game, the match had striking moments of individual brilliance capped off by a hat-trick from Mohammad Shami. But the bigger picture is that Afghanistan, looking quite untroubled till Bumrah’s twin strikes, nearly put one over the mighty India.

Those who came expecting India to thump 400 batting fiirst against their on-paper-much-weaker Asian neighbour were in for disappointment, but the match took so many twists and turns that even the most fanatic fan of wham-bam cricket would have had his/her heartbeat racing.

That was the whole purpose of this World Cup, wasn’t it? The Associate Nations were excluded and the format borrowed from 1992 — a memorable event that produced some outstanding games — in order to produce more competitive matches to keep viewers interested in the global 50-over tournament. The 300+ games have hardly managed to produce such even contests and, instead, tended to become increasingly predictable after a team clinches the first round.

In a major throwback to the 1990s, a trend that began when Australia and England replicated their World Cup 1992 jerseys, there have been close tussles in par-total matches. A delight for the purists, the pitches — contrary to what was expected — have helped batsmen and bowlers equally.

Every time it seemed like the World Cup was falling into a dull groove, an extraordinary performance has popped up, from one team or the other. Sri Lanka, who have been among the least competitive teams this World Cup, defending 232 against the rampant tournament hosts, and Afghanistan nearly chasing down India’s 224 are vivid examples of how contests are pleasingly evened out on tougher wickets.

It has also balanced the euphoria surrounding teams overly reliant on one skill alone. England might have stomped their way around at home in the build-up to the World Cup but their bowling, even with the last-ditch inclusion of Jofra Archer, has screamed of inconsistency. They have lost two of their three matches against sub-continental sides and are yet face to the strongest of them all.

A neutral week in the World Cup, one which has kept every discipline of the game in the picture, has rekindled the interest surrounding the tournament, which was threatening to turn into a damp squib with all the rain raining on its parade.

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