Bowlers hold the key in batsman’s utopia

This article was originally published on Last Word On Sports.

Much has been made about the dominance bat has acquired over ball in One Day cricket—a theme that has only been amplified during this World Cup. The benchmark total of 300 is rapidly being replaced by a younger model, 400—although no one seems to have told England—and in the space of five years, the triple century has usurped the double century as a batsman’s ODI Everest.

When Chris Gayle plundered a sorry Zimbabwe for 215 in Nelson two weeks ago, we witnessed the first ODI 200 that radiated inevitability instead of incredibility. As AB de Villiers shaved five deliveries off Corey Anderson’s fastest hundred in Johannesburg in January—he needed just 31 balls—we took another step towards inexorable batting perfection. David Warner then toyed with the idea of crunching three in Perth last week, as he cantered past 150 with over a third of Australia’s innings to go; admittedly he was “only” battering Afghanistan.

Of the 15 occasions where 400 has been posted by a side in ODI cricket, four have occurred this year, with three from South Africa. Interestingly, four of the five highest totals were recorded in 2006—two by the Proteas. A further 63 totals make the list when including innings in excess of 350, with 27 coming since the turn of the decade. The run-gluts are coming at an unprecedented rate.

However, in the 75 times a target of 350 or greater has been set, only thrice has it proven not to be enough. Scoreboard pressure has, at least, has remained a constant. Sri Lanka looked to be on track to challenge Australia’s 376 in Sydney on Sunday, anchored by yet another seamless Kumar Sangakkara ton, but ultimately, they still fell 65 runs shy of victory.

Analysis of individual statistics would paint a similar picture, there is little point indulging with further mind-boggling statistics. The dawn of batting supremacy has broken—for the first 50 overs anyway.

Therefore is all hope for bowlers lost? Can we conclude that all future pliers of the bowling trade are either masochists or insane? Well, despite the apparent overwhelming evidence, no. In fact, this World Cup has, and will continue to showcase that capable bowlers are worth their weight in gold, fast bowlers in particular. Granted, it is much tougher. Miserly career economy rates are long gone, in that aspect the game has fundamentally changed. Batting powerplays, bigger bats and smaller boundaries suggest this is ICC-induced change, but it doesn’t matter. The contest remains the same.  Good bowling is still good bowling, and it shines as brightly in the new game as it did in the old.

Tim Southee’s seven for 33 against England earlier in the tournament killed the game. In firing out their opponents for 123, New Zealand had killed the game. Similarly in Auckland, Trent Boult’s five wickets gave the Kiwis total command against Australia, dismissing them for 151. It was only another equally impressive bowling effort from Mitchell Starc—who claimed a six-fer—that almost pulled his side back from the brink.

It was Starc who was also vital for Australia when they played Sri Lanka. On a day where 688 runs were racked up, his eight overs for 29 with two late scalps that proved decisive. Conceding fewer than four-an-over choked Sri Lanka’s chase. Every other player in the match went for more than five; four leaked over eight. If just one bowler from the opposition turned in a Starc-like performance, Australia would likely have been restricted to under 350: a score Sri Lanka may well have got close to, considering how ably they handled the first 30 overs of their innings.

Pakistan demonstrated that small totals can still be defended, even against the batting might of South Africa. The choking tag is always bandied around when the latter loses, and in pursuit of 232 they perhaps should have fared better, but Pakistan won this match more than South Africa lost it. Aggressive, fast bowling—a Pakistani trademark—snared wickets, which allowed them to secure the win with the Proteas unable to utilise fourteen overs of their innings. Pakistan’s ferocity with the ball, albeit not at the level of cricket’s Class of ’92 (the Imran Khan-led side who trumped all the last time the World Cup was held on these shores) was a match-winner.

It is not altogether facetious to suggest that the best way to counter attacking batting is through attacking bowling. Brendon McCullum’s Black Caps are living proof. Five times New Zealand have bowled their opposition out this World Cup, five times they have won. Instead of sitting back and protecting strong starts, they have gone for the jugular—employing slip fielders well into the middle overs has not been uncommon. It’s an intriguing policy and one that could prove a trailblazer for future ODI bowling.

Forget slow bouncers and all the other “variations” that in a previous era would have been treated with the disdain they deserve, batsmen have cottoned on. For bowlers, it’s not about reinventing the wheel, but perfecting their original art. Attempting to contain batsmen has become a largely fruitless exercise, although pacers would be well served finding appropriate medication for their yorker allergy. In modern ODI cricket teams must seek to bowl the opposition out at all costs. It’s a high-risk strategy but if a side bats 50 overs they’ll most likely end up well into the 300s anyway—a score that is rarely chased. In this World Cup alone, only three times out of 18 has a 300-plus score been successfully tracked down.

So, working from these musings, who is best placed to take the plaudits at this cricketing carnival? New Zealand are the obvious candidates. McCullum’s men are playing like their rugby counterparts have so often. His brazen approach with the bat has paid dividends so far while Boult and Southee are spearheading the bowling attack with great aplomb: they are currently first and second respectively on the list of leading wicket takers for the tournament.  However, the hosts are yet to break their semi-final duck at World Cups and this run is very much mirroring their 1992 run, the year they last hosted the event, where they topped their group before exiting in the last four.

Australia possess extraordinary batting depth, to an extent where Brad Haddin can come in as low as eight, but they came unstuck against New Zealand in Auckland, and also looked shaky at times with the ball against Sri Lanka: Starc has bailed them out somewhat. Moreover, batting first in all four games has done little to assess their versatility credentials. That said, home advantage and a winning know-how will stand them in good stead as the competition reaches the knockout phases.

Claiming that South Africa have underachieved in the One Day arena would find almost unanimous agreement, and despite the compelling argument for them to break their World Cup duck in 2015, the seeds for another choke are already in place. Untouchable when given first-strike, they have looked a side confused chasing, falling 130 short of India’s 307 in Melbourne, before being skittled for a paltry 202 against Pakistan. Once again, an ICC tournament looks like being South Africa’s kryptonite.

As goes the saying in the sub-continent: “If India and Pakistan never partitioned they would never be beaten,” for the former has the batting might while the Pakistanis have historically reigned supreme with the ball. Alas, we will never know if that presumption would hold true but both have reasons to be optimistic ahead of the latter stages.

Unfancied by many, especially after their tri-series with Australia and England, India have once again turned up to an ICC event and performed. Unbeaten so far, their quick bowlers dismantled West Indies and convincing all-round displays against Pakistan and South Africa gives the defending champions much to be confident about. A likely quarter-final with Bangladesh is an added bonus for MS Dhoni’s men.

Meanwhile, Pakistan announced their revival with a blitzing of South Africa’s power-packed batting lineup in Auckland. They may no longer have the Wasims and Waqars, or the Miandads and Inzamams, but it appears that Misbah-ul-Haq’s men have found some belief. Pakistan’s two ICC victories (1992 World Cup and 2009 World Twenty20) arose following hapless starts. In beating South Africa, we saw glimpses of the old Pakistan. The fiery trio of Mohammad Irfan, Wahab Riaz and Rahat Ali caused chaos with the ball while Sarfraz Ahmed’s inclusion brought a world-record six catches behind the stumps as well as a mood-setting 49 at the top of the order. Their bowling makes up for what their batting has so far lacked—strength in the former may prove vital. A long shot maybe, but the mercurial Pakistan can never be discounted. They thrive on adversity.

Cricket may be hurtling towards a batsman’s utopia, but in a perverse way, it makes a star bowler all that more instrumental. The ability to thwart the McCullum assault is a far rarer trait than being able to blast the ball beyond the boundary, as is the nous to protect a sub-par total. No, the bowler is still essential. It is far too soon to be scribing their obituary.

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