The World Cup's new best friend

Tim Bresnan bowled Tamim Iqbal to get England back in the contest Getty Images

The main course is yet to be laid out but, despite the tournament retreating to obscurity for the major part of the past few weeks, the World Cup is well on its way to fulfilling one of its prime objectives. Already it has shown that there is life in one-day cricket. The crowds had never really turned away but, as the lure of Twenty20 has grown, the hum about the tiredness of one-day cricket has got louder. After all, there is only so much cricket that cricket can take.

The World Cup is indebted in large measure to England who, through a strange mixture of incompetence and indomitable spirit, have provided the best illustration of the ebb and flow and the variety one-day cricket can produce. In the five-matches involving them, we have seen almost the entire range: high-scoring heists, a heart-stopping tie, low-scoring thrillers, upsets, dramatic collapses, super defending, spectacular hitting, and last-gasp meltdowns. There is no telling where they will finish in this tournament but they are already worthy of a bonus for keeping the World Cup turning.

Add to that another star: the batting Powerplay. When it was first instituted it brought scepticism among those concerned about the already lopsided balance between the bat and the ball. It was feared that five more overs with field restrictions, that too at the choosing of the batting side, would lead to further mayhem against bowlers already short-changed by flat pitches, shrinking boundaries and meatier bats. What it has instead created is a period of play when anything can happen.

Ireland used it spectacularly in their game against England to mount the unlikeliest of victory charges and, against India last night, South Africa timed it perfectly to tame the asking rate to the territory of the manageable. But no way has the batting Powerplay been a one-way street. Indeed, as India demonstrated so dramatically during their self-induced combustion on Saturday, the batting Powerplay can be the most treacherous banana skin for the team calling for it. With the opportunity of runs, it also brings the threat of wickets.

But more than runs and wickets, it has brought strategy back to a period of the one-day game that had tended to drift along predictably, with fielders hanging back and batsmen churning out mechanical singles. More than anything else, it has imposed attacking cricket on both teams.

The batting Powerplay is different from the bowling Powerplays, both mandatory and optional, in two fundamental ways. The bowling Powerplays, invariably taken at a stretch, allow the batsmen to ease into a rhythm. In this World Cup particularly, opening batsmen have shown no particular haste. The starts have mostly been calculated and gradual, based on preservation rather than all-out acceleration. But the batting Powerplay, because it is so brief, and because it is often initiated by the batting side with the sole purpose of propelling the run-rate, obliges the batsmen to go over through the infield. Sometimes it can be dangerously disruptive.

England, coasting in their chase of 338 against India with such ease that it prompted the Bangalore fans to start leaving, found this out the hard way. Ian Bell, batting serenely till them and beginning to cramp, decided to launch Zaheer Khan into the night sky but ended merely lobbing the ball within the circle. Zaheer, who would have never bowled that over had the Powerplay not been taken, next produced the ball of the match to nail Strauss, playing his greatest one-day innings, and with two more catches in the infield England surrendered four wickets in those overs for 25 runs, before managing to tie the match.

India themselves had fluffed their own Powerplay earlier in the day by managing only 32 at the cost of Sachin Tendulkar's wicket which restricted them to 338. At one point, a total of 360 had seemed plausible.

It is a reasonable assumption that, for it to be counted as good, a batting Powerplay must yield 50 runs. It would count as super for the batting side to achieve without losing a wicket. But the quick look at the numbers tells us the 50-run mark has been breached in only eight of the 43 instances of the batting Powerplay, and, barring South Africa against India, each of this has been achieved against the non-Test playing nations (which currently includes Zimbabwe).

Equally revealingly, there have been only eight instances of a team going through the batting Powerplay without losing a wicket, and on 19 occasions, teams have lost two or more wickets, and seven times three or more.

Different teams have adopted different strategies. Pakistan have been delaying theirs till almost the very end, and this has worked for them apart from their loss against New Zealand. They stand second in the list of batting Powerplay run-rates (9.82, which is behind South Africa's 10.18) and No.1 in terms of having lost three wickets during these periods.

It's a policy England seem to have embraced after the Powerplay malfunction against India. This implies batting on without disrupting normal rhythm until the last five overs, when everything must go anyway. But this works on the principle that the team must have at least two batsmen capable of making the most of it. And overall, England have the worst batting Powerplay numbers among the top nations, with a run-rate of 6.40 at the cost of 12 wickets, the highest any team has lost during batting Powerplays.

India, whose sole gameplan revolves around batting their opponents out of the game, have tended to launch the final assault around the 35th over to coincide with the mandatory change of the ball. However, only once in five games, when they scored 48 without losing a wicket against Bangladesh, has this gone to plan.

There are lessons from these for both batting and bowling captains. India have seen it from both sides already. There was no other way for them to get back into the game against England apart from the Powerplay wickets; it was the same for South Africa when India were 267 for 1 in 40 overs in Nagpur.

If anything, the batting Powerplays have shown the value of posting fielders in the ring and denying the strolled single. And for batting teams, it is not merely the passport to easy runs for it can, equally swiftly, derail the innings beyond recovery.

Why batting sides are not more flexible about it is hard to fathom. India's score stood at 128 for no loss at end of the bowling Powerplays on Saturday, with both Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag in sublime ball-hitting zones. But did India even consider opting to extend the field restrictions to allow them to carry on the same way for five overs? As it turned out, the next five overs produced only 27 runs as Tendulkar and Sehwag adjusted to the changes in the field, and Tendulkar had to make another adjustment when the Powerplay was eventually taken 39th over, and promptly lost his wicket.

But while the batting Powerplay may not always be a blessing for the batting teams, it is quite so for the one-day game.