March 22, 2011

It's a bowler's game

The World Cup has been as good as it has been because batsmen haven't dictated terms

This World Cup was meant to be won by the bat. It may well yet be. But among the most heartening features of this tournament has been that bowlers have given us so much pleasure. In fact, they have been the soul of tournament, providing, as only they can do, most of the twists that have kept the matches buzzing. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the two best bowling sides have topped the groups.

Somewhat surprisingly, only five scores of 300-plus have been made in matches involving two Test nations. Unsurprisingly, four of these, plus two near-300 scores, have come in matches involving India. They have had the batting might, despite the late-innings crashes, to pile up the runs, and lacked the bowling teeth to prevent their opponents from getting them or getting close. This has made for close and exciting games, but mercifully big scores have not been the norm.

South Africa and Pakistan have brought the most surprises. South Africa for the manner in which they have liberated themselves of the self-imposed shackles of the past. They have played a legspinner, opened the bowling with a left-arm spinner, had an offpinner bowl in the bowling Powerplay, and incredibly, played three spinners in their first match. Their boldness has been rewarded. Two of their spinners feature among the top 10 wicket-takers of the tournament, and they have gone for around four runs an over.

The faith in spin has given Graeme Smith a wonderfully varied bowling attack. South Africa have had swing, both traditional and reverse, hustle and bounce, and a right-arm medium fast bowler to do the holding job; in addition to the full gamut of spin. Apart from at Nagpur, where the combination of a flat pitch and the brilliance of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag led to them being taken for nearly 300 runs, South Africa have not conceded more than 250. Even in Nagpur their bowlers staged a sensational rally, taking nine wickets for 29. They are the only side to have bowled out their opponents in all six of their matches, and they share the best economy rate (4.31) with Sri Lanka.

Pakistan, as might have been expected of them, have sprung the biggest surprise by finishing their group ahead of Sri Lanka and Australia, and they have done so entirely on the back of their bowling. Only one of their batsmen, Umar Akmal, features among the top 30 run-getters in this World Cup - and he's at No. 27. But their bowling has been even more varied than South Africa's, and despite the four-over massacre at the hands of New Zealand, their economy rate is second, at 4.36 runs per over.

Shahid Afridi, who has now abandoned all pretensions to being a batsman, is the tournament's leading wicket-taker. He has been crafty and cunning, constantly varying his pace and trajectory, sliding some in quick, floating a few, fizzing others, getting some to turn away, some to come in with the arm, and some just to go straight. It boggles the mind that a man who can show such intelligence with the ball can be so headless with the bat.

Umar Gul has been a worthy partner. Easily the best quick bowler in this World Cup, he has taken wickets both at the top of the innings and at the end, by moving both the new ball and the old. Only against Sri Lanka could he be said to have had a bad match. And the only time Pakistan have conceded over 300 (against New Zealand), Gul was magnificent, with 3 for 32. In fact, New Zealand launched their spectacular assault only after Gul's overs had been exhausted during the batting Powerplay. He and Afridi have claimed 30 wickets between them in the tournament so far, the highest by any two bowlers. Robin Peterson and Imran Tahir are a close second with 26.

Bowlers have been the soul of tournament, providing, as only they can do, most of the twists that have kept the matches buzzing. It is no coincidence that the two best bowling sides have topped the groups

The rest of Pakistan's bowlers have played their part. Mohammad Hafeez has been tight, Wahab Riaz has taken wickets, and even Shoaib Akhtar, limping and a shadow of his swaggering self, helped win the match against Sri Lanka by shattering the stumps twice at crucial times. Above all, Pakistan's playing XI features the whole range of bowlers: a right-arm fast bowler who can seam and swing it, a left-arm quick, a right-arm medium-pacer, a legspinner, a left-arm spinner and an offspinner.

Bowlers have shone for other teams too. Even though many of them haven't been able to last the distance, bowlers have underpinned England's erratic campaign. Graeme Swann has been magnificent, the architect of two of their wins in low-scoring thrillers, and Tim Bresnan has been their most reliable quick. For Australia, who have, in acknowledgement of their thin spin resources, chosen a high-octane fast-bowling attack, Brett Lee has made a vigorous comeback, bowling with speed and menace. Even though erratic, Shaun Tait has bent the old ball in, and Mitchell Johnson has bowled without fanfare but efficiently enough. For Sri Lanka, Muttiah Muralitharan has been both economical and wicket-taking, as usual, and he has brought all his experience and skills to bear on bowling in the batting Powerplay. Lasith Malinga, who made a late entry, warmed up to the task with a hat-trick from searing yorkers.

While the numbers might show a skewed picture because a large number of matches have featured the associates, filtering them out gives us a good story too. Against Test batting sides, 25 bowlers have averaged 5 runs or fewer per over. India have only two on this list - Zaheer Khan, who has been excellent, and Harbhajan Singh - and they bring up the rear. But that three legspinners - Afridi, Tahir and Devendra Bishoo - feature in the top 20 is worthy of celebration.

West Indies' batting has been shambolic, and it has cost them two wins, against England and India. But one of the high points of the World Cup was watching Kemar Roach and Bishoo operate together after England had got off to a rollicking start. It would be perfidy to compare them to Shane Warne and Brett Lee or Waqar Younis and Mushtaq Ahmed, but a fast bowler and legspinner bowling to take wickets, even if in one-dayers, is one of the most thrilling experiences in cricket. And for a few overs, as the English batsmen fumbled and groped against the two, cricket was on a high.

For all this we should be thankful to the pitches. In Colombo there has been seam, reverse-swing, and of course, spin. Chittagong has been slow, low and turning; Mirpur only a bit better, but hardly a batsman's dream; Bangalore and Nagpur have been beautiful for batting, but Chennai has produced the most interesting strips, and thus among the most absorbing matches. There has been grip and turn, and bounce in the early overs, which has grown unpredictable with time.

We have seen all kinds of matches in the tournament: high-scoring thrillers and low-scoring thrillers, a tie, lots of collapses, and a few utter routs.

A bowlers' World Cup in the subcontinent. Who would have imagined it.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo