March 29, 2015

What did we learn from this World Cup?

That there is a place for proper batsmanship in ODIs, that New Zealand punch above their weight, and that taking wickets wins you matches

The nation of domination: Australia have won four of the last five World Cups © ICC

A World Cup asks questions of the game as well as questions of the teams. So what have we learned about the state of cricket during this one?

The tournament was a success. Good weather, big crowds, a final contested by the two host nations: the 2015 World Cup showed cricket in a good light. The 50-over game, so long static and pedestrian, has certainly evolved. But a parallel question - "How many memorable games were there?" - draws a more muted response. Positive batting and high scoring rates have improved the spectacle but reduced the tension. Few games went to the wire.

Did the best team win?
Yes. Australia were worthy, deserving and engaging winners. The astonishing feature of Australian cricket is how quickly it bounces back. In the 2013 Ashes, Australia looked, well, un-Australian. Eighteen months later, it feels as though the old order, default Australian dominance, has been restored.

Are South Africa chokers?
Not on this evidence. South Africa played with big-hearted ambition and spirit. In the epic semi-final against New Zealand, South Africa, despite making costly mistakes, left everything they had out on the pitch.

There is a difference between choking and losing. Jack Nicklaus, golf's most prolific winner, also came second in more tournaments than any other player. (I know a semi-final is not exactly second place, but you get the idea.) It is not always a disgrace to be close. In literal terms, choking is the inability to perform routine tasks, like a computer suffering from a short circuit. It is a special and rare category of losing, not a term to be used loosely and carelessly. And what is the definition of losing? Losing accounts for 50% of the outcomes in sport. So let's use the proper word.

South Africa threw off the burdensome chokers tag this World Cup © Getty Images

Which team overperformed the most?
The thinking fan keeps two questions in his head simultaneously. The first is: "Who is winning?" and the second is: "Who ought to be winning?" That "ought" does not imply a moral sense of entitlement but a practical grasp of the facts. A more populous, richer sporting nation, with more talent at its disposal, "ought" to beat a poorer, smaller and less cricket-focused nation. If Luxembourg draw 1-1 with Spain in football, it is a good result for Luxembourg and a shocking outcome for Spain.

Now think of New Zealand's World Cup performance in that context. Its population is 4.4 million and much of its best athletic talent is drawn to rugby, the sport at which it is the world leader. As a result, New Zealand cricket must make the very best of every scrap of talent it has. That's why, before the World Cup, I wrote in this column that New Zealand were "the best pound-for-pound punchers in world cricket". On the evidence of this tournament, they now lead that category more than ever. World cricket should be grateful to New Zealand for shaking things up. They won many new friends at this World Cup.

Which team underperformed the most?
This is an easy one, I'm afraid. Given its wealth, population, talent base and resources, England ought to be perennial high achievers on the international stage. Far from it. Instead, England are stuck playing a brand of cricket that simply cannot cut it in the modern era. The average strike rate at this World Cup was 89 runs per 100 balls (up from 62 in 1992); 270 from 50 overs, in other words, is merely par for the course. It was disheartening to hear Eoin Morgan, after England's exit, saying the plan had been "to fight" through to the knockout stage. How about "playing" to the quarter-final instead? Were Morgan's attacking instincts - usually so much more positive and expressive than the phrase he used - dulled by the cricketing culture surrounding him?

Mitchell Starc knows the value of wickets in a batsman-dominated game © AFP

Should the next World Cup contract to ten teams once again?
Absolutely not. The Associates produced plenty of good cricket and some thrilling matches. Cricket needs to expand, not retract. Cricket is routinely described as the world's second-favourite team sport. But the game still faces a stern challenge to retain and expand its position within world sport. We need new faces, different voices and fresh cricketing cultures. While Australia deserve high praise for their resilient and positive cricketing culture, the fact that they have won four of the last five World Cups underlines the need to encourage new international teams. All sports, to a degree, rely on uncertainty and surprise. It won't suit anyone, even Australia, if dominance morphs into monopoly.

Is batting too dominant?
For all the talk of oversized bats and undersized grounds, it was a bowler, Mitchell Starc, who set the tone in the final. The counter-intuitive lesson of this World Cup is that the surest way - perhaps the only way - to stop devastating power-hitting is not canny containment but by fighting fire with fire. Take wickets or get smashed: that is the executive summary.

Is there a place for proper batsmanship in the modern ODI game?
Definitely. David Warner's mindset might be ultra-positive, but the basics of his technique are absolutely sound. Alongside explosive power, Warner's game is also balanced, compact and uncomplicated. The challenge for selectors around the world is not to elevate sloggers who can bully bad teams but to identify proper batsmen with the potential to add new gears to their existing game. England, for example, should be looking to develop batsmen such as Alex Hales, who is capable of hitting good balls for four with relatively little risk. In the final, both Michael Clarke and Steven Smith showed real defensive skill and aptitude as well as flair and aggression.

Brendon McCullum: an aggressive captain, and thank god for that © Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Are there limits to "positivity"?
Brendon McCullum, so often the most aggressive of captains, did blink once during the final. When he moved second slip out of the cordon, Warner inevitably edged the very next ball. Ross Taylor dived across from first slip in vain; the ball would have travelled straight to second. Rather than blaming McCullum, we might reflect that some situations are so difficult, the odds so heavily stacked against you, that all the options look unappealing. Keeping the field up looks like suicide. But pushing the field out seems like merely prolonging the agony.

These days, the task of chasing the game - either in the field or with the bat - is deeply unenviable. Just ask England.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter