The 2015 World Cup lasted 48 matches, and was spread over six weeks. Over this period of relentless action, one of the aspects that stood out - unfortunately - was the number of one-sided contests. Match after match went by where the result was often a foregone conclusion even before the first innings had ended. Given the way the tournament progressed, it was quite fitting that the final was similarly lopsided too, with Australia's seven-wicket victory with 101 balls to spare being one of the easiest wins in World Cup finals.
There were a few tight games - the New Zealand-South Africa semi-final was easily one of the most memorable ODIs ever, while the low-scoring thriller between New Zealand and Australia was intense and action-packed from the first ball to the last. There were a few others as well, but those were exceptions in what was largely a tournament filled with one-sided games: out of 48 matches, 20 were decided by more than 50 runs, and 12 by a margin of five or more wickets with two or more overs to spare. That means two-thirds of the total matches were pretty one-sided (though there may have been passages of play within those matches which suggested a close contest). Thirteen games were decided by margins of more than 100 runs, and nine by more than five wickets and ten overs to spare.
These numbers were pretty similar to the numbers from the 2011 World Cup (see table below), but the difference this time was the lack of competitive games even when the top sides played each other. In matches between the top ten teams in the 2015 World Cup, only three out of 26 matches met the criteria for a close game defined here - a margin of less than 20 runs, or less than three wickets or six balls to spare: the Bangladesh-England game (15 runs), New Zealand versus Australia (one wicket), and the New Zealand-South Africa (one ball to spare). That's one close encounter every nine matches. In the 2011 World Cup, there were six such close matches out of 26 - that's twice as many as in this World Cup - including a tie between India and England.
The New Zealand-England game in Wellington was just one example when a match between two of the top ten teams turned out to be a complete no-contest, as England were bundled out for 123 and New Zealand chased the target down in less than 13 overs. In 2015, about 70% of the matches between the top ten sides ultimately turned out to be one-sided (18 out of 26), a slight increase from 2011 (16 out of 26). (This includes games like the one between Australia and Pakistan, which promised much but turned on a dropped catch and ultimately resulted in a comfortable win for the hosts.)
The difference in 2015 was also the number of matches where the teams batting first racked up huge scores and won comfortably even in games between two top ten teams. In matches between the top ten teams, there were 13 such instances, compared to just seven in 2011. India beat Pakistan and South Africa in this manner, as did West Indies against Pakistan, and South Africa against West Indies. The run rates in the first 35 and last 15 overs for the teams batting first and teams chasing in this World Cup offer an insight into what has made the difference this time: in the last 15 overs, teams batting first scored at 8.82 runs per over, which was 40% more than the run rate during the same overs for the teams chasing.
In the 2011 World Cup, the corresponding percentage was only 15%. The pressures of a chase invariably means teams chasing don't score as many runs at the back end of their innings as teams batting first - instead they look to make up by scoring more in the earlier part of their innings - but usually the difference is about 15-20%; in the 2015 World Cup, the teams batting first scored 40% more in the last 15, and that differential was a bridge too far for the chasing teams to make up in the earlier overs. The new rules, which allow only four fielders outside the circle in the non-Powerplay overs, have helped teams bat with far greater freedom especially in the last ten overs, and while these rules are obviously the same for both sides, the pressures of chasing have clearly hampered teams batting second, preventing them from exploiting the rule change to the same extent.
The New Zealand innings in the final followed an unusual scoring pattern, where they collapsed from 150 for 3 after 35 overs to 183 all out, but through most of the tournament, the template for winning a match for the team batting first was to keep wickets in hand through the first 35 overs, build a solid foundation, and then pile it on in the last 15.
In matches between the top ten teams, of the 20 times that teams had five or more wickets in hand after 35 overs, they won 16 - that's four out of five matches. Apart from the final, the only instances of teams losing from these positions were England (161 for 4 after 35) against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh against New Zealand (161 for 4 after 35), and Zimbabwe against India (158 for 3 after 35). All of these games were in New Zealand, where chasing targets seemed to be a lot easier than in Australia.
Teams batting first obviously utilised the fielding restrictions superbly in the last 15, but since the rule change in November 2012 and before the World Cup, this fielding restriction hadn't resulted in similar success for teams batting first keeping wickets in hand: the win percentage for teams with five or more wickets in hand was around 50-55% in the earlier periods. In the World Cup, though, it suddenly spiked to 80%.
With so many runs being scored in the last 15, this was also a tournament where doubling the 30-over score was achieved very frequently - 61% of the time, compared to less than 40% in the earlier periods. The 35-over score was doubled at a 15% frequency, when it hadn't gone past 5% in the earlier periods.
The new rule of four fielders within the circle had been in existence for a couple of years before this World Cup, but never before did batting teams exploit it like they did in the tournament. Some of the batting during the last 15 was so brutal - and the bowlers so helpless - that it could well lead to a rule change later this year. For the bowlers and fielding captains who struggled through the slog overs in the World Cup, that wouldn't be a moment too soon.
* In matches against top ten teams, when they'd scored at least 120 after 30, and 140 after 35