March 30, 2015

Advantage batsmen, game to bowlers

In a tournament that gave the appearance of being dominated by the bat, the ball had the last word and it was Australia's attack that provided a degree of redemption

Australia had one of the most powerful batting line-ups but the destruction was wrought by their bowlers © Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

If the essence of Australia's World Cup-winning campaign could be distilled to one moment, this would be it. A thunderous ball, full, fast and swinging, from Mitchell Starc zipping past Brendon McCullum's bat to rattle his off stump. It was a match-shaping, tournament-defining moment: New Zealand never recovered from it, and it electrified Australia to a performance worthy of champions.

A previous moment of such significance had belonged to Grant Elliott, whose final-over six off Dale Steyn had carried New Zealand to their first-ever final. It can be argued that the drama and the definitiveness of its impact made Elliott's six a more iconic image, but Starc's ball established Australia's dominance even before New Zealand could begin their challenge.

And it was fitting, too. In a tournament that gave the appearance of being dominated by the bat, the ball had the last word. Starc was the Man of the Tournament, James Faulkner was the Man of the Match, and the best bowling side won the Cup.

Australia brought to the tournament arguably the most powerful batting assembly in recent times, but the destruction was wrought by their bowlers. Their explosive opening pair failed and, barring Steven Smith, none of their batsmen featured in the list of top 10 run-makers. The only match they lost in the tournament was an outcome of a sensational batting collapse. Even that match was almost salvaged by their bowlers. In the knockout round, they were irresistible, never allowing a challenge even to develop, never conceding at a rate of more than five runs in the innings.

The bowling story, however, wasn't limited to Australia. Three of the four semi-finalists were carried by their bowlers. Until they ran into Australia, India bowled out all their opponents and New Zealand nearly did so. Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami were the third and fourth highest wicket-takers in the World Cup, and they defied their pre-tournament form by conceding less than five an over each. Trent Boult's bowling was one of the most compelling parts of New Zealand's journey to the final: rare was an opening spell from him that didn't produce a wicket.

Until South Africa get over the line in a global tournament, their ability to hold their nerve in the vital moments will continue to be questioned. © Getty Images

And while the 400-mark was breached three times, and overall there were 28 scores of 300 or more - 11 more than the 2011 World Cup - only three times in the tournament was a target of over 300 chased down. Ireland managed it against West Indies in their first match, Sri Lanka sauntered in their chase against England, while Bangladesh secured a record chase against Scotland. In 2011, there were two instances of winning teams chasing over 300 and England scored 338 to tie against India.

By themselves, the numbers told a story. There were bigger scores, but fewer even contests. Only one of the seven knock-out matches produced a grand-stand finish, and only more match that mattered - Bangladesh's win over England that helped them qualify - went to the last few overs. It wasn't as much a World Cup of bat v bat as had been feared, but the playing conditions - two white balls that never aged sufficiently to allow reverse-swing or turn, and one less fielder in the outfield which made protecting boundaries that much harder - made sure that batting first, despite the final and two of the quarter-finals, created almost an unfair advantage between equal teams.

A couple of days before the final, Mark Nicholas hosted for us Ian Chappell, Michael Holding, Martin Crowe and Rahul Dravid in a discussion over the ideal format for the 2019 World Cup. Opinions were split about the size of the tournament and the place of the Associates in it, but there was unanimity that the balance between the bat and ball had to be restored. The vote was in favour of abolishing two new balls and for sending one more man outside the 30-yard circle.

Holding argued passionately, and found unconditional support, for restricting the depth of the bat. "There was a time when the bat used to have a sweet spot," he said, "these days, there are sweet bats." Wickets in the first 20 overs made the big difference for Australia, but 150 runs in the last 15 overs feels thrilling only as an exception. As a routine, it dulls the senses.

Inarguably, the four best teams made it to the semi-finals but, of these, South Africa under-performed again. They lost three of the five matches they played against top eight teams and, once again, vital errors in the closing stages cost them a spot in the final. It was a gut-wrenching result for them, but unless they get over the line in a global tournament, their ability to hold their nerve in the vital moments will continue to be questioned.

On the other hand, New Zealand and India went as far their ability could have taken them. In some ways, their clean record till the losses to Australia flattered them somewhat. Barring South Africa, India didn't meet a team that could give them a contest. Their death bowling went largely untested until the semi-final, and their lack of finish at the end of the innings never cost them. New Zealand played all their matches at home, and even though they beat Australia at Eden Park, they still arrived at the final decidedly as underdogs.

But Australia won because they were a class above and in each of their final three matches, the ones that really counted, their bowling - the fast bowlers applied such pressure that even Glenn Maxwell took wickets - proved decisively superior. And in the process they provided the World Cup a degree of redemption and a clue to shaping its future: even one-day cricket needs to cherish and nurture bowlers.

Pity the behaviour.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal

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