At about 3pm on Saturday, New Zealand had made short work of Sri Lanka in 45 overs, a day after West Indies had done the same to Pakistan in 35 overs. Two games between top sides over in 80 overs. Imagine the horror if the ICC hadn't eliminated the others. If Afghanistan hadn't been made to qualify.
Pretty soon on - finally - a glorious summer's afternoon in Bristol, Afghanistan were five down for 77 despite having staged a comeback. It wasn't enough to dampen the mood in the stands where the Afghan fans were still partying and more than a few English fans were sticking it to the Aussies. As if oblivious of the run of play as the fans in the stands, Najibullah Zadran and Gulbadin Naib began to counterattack.
Sweeps, reverse-sweeps, swipes, two fours and two sixes in an Adam Zampa over, and Afghanistan had already done better to counter tough conditions and bowling than two teams who weren't made to qualify for this World Cup. However, at 160 for 5 in 33 overs, this was becoming much more than bragging rights among the weaker teams in the tournament. Afghanistan could actually hope of making it to around 250, and then test Australia on their weakness: spin.
At this point, Marcus Stoinis came on and bounced the two batsmen. Both of them fell to top edges, and Australia never stopped bouncing Afghanistan after that. Eighteen percent of balls delivered by Australia's quicks were short, almost double the usual rate you see.
The World Cup is just three days old, and we already have a trend (no, not slagging off the ICC for its exclusionist ten-team tournament). Fifty-four wickets have fallen in the World Cup so far, 23 of those to balls pitched short or short of a length by fast bowlers, according to ESPNcricinfo's logs. West Indies practically bounced Pakistan out in the second game, on a fresh pitch in Nottingham.
"If you want to look at how to play in certain conditions, look at the hosts. England love to pack their side with tall quicks who can bang the pitch hard"
According to the data, fast bowlers have bowled 454 balls short or short of a length in four matches. They have been slightly costly, going for 469 runs, but teams will take the strike rate of a wicket every 19 balls. The overall control percentage of slightly over 50% bears out the effectiveness of the short ball. Short of a good length is the next-best alternative with a false stroke drawn almost three times every 10 balls.
Anything fuller than that has yielded a much better economy rate of 5.64, but a wicket only every 25 balls. Batsmen have been in control of length balls four times out of five. This is a World Cup where there seems to be a consensus among coaches that only wickets can stop batsmen. So keep expecting the ball that is bringing the bowlers wickets: short and short of a length.
One of the reasons the short ball is a go is that in England the straight boundaries are usually shorter than the square ones. The trend has been similar over a longer period too. Since the start of 2018, in ODIs in England, balls pitched fuller than short of a length have brought about a wicket every 40 balls, and have conceded 6.11 runs to the over. When pitched short or short of a good length, runs begin to flow faster - 7.5 to the over - but wickets fall rapidly too, one every 28 balls. Over the period, only Australia has provided similar returns to the short ball; in every other country the strike rate for this kind of bowling is in the 30s.
If you want to look at how to play in certain conditions, look at the hosts. Over this period, England have loved to pack their sides with tall quicks who can bang the pitch hard. Liam Plunkett is in the squad ahead of David Willey largely for that reason. With big square boundaries, the short ball, especially with the pace variations in use today, becomes a wicket-taking weapon. And it all came together beautifully for England when Jofra Archer got Faf du Plessis with a 149kph bouncer in the opening match. In other countries, you could expect the top edge to fly for six, but here it didn't even threaten the rope.
Swing and speed in the air are of course important, but if the conditions play to the expectations of normal English conditions, it is the bounce off the pitch and the natural variation that you can extract with different releases and grips that will be more important.
Over in Bristol, Australia had been watching and taking note. "Everyone will be using that no doubt, with quite a few of the grounds being such short straight boundaries," Aaron Finch said on the eve of their first match. "And in England, with such long, square boundaries at times, depending on where you play, it will be a huge asset."
Bristol is one of those grounds with extremely short straight boundaries but big square ones. The short ball is a high-risk ball. Edges can fly for runs. There can be wides. The margin of error is less. It all showed in the 42 runs it cost Australia off 32 balls. The rewards, however, are good too. Australia managed three wickets in those 32 balls; on another day a couple more edges might have gone to hand. And teams realise that you can't defend for 50 overs; you have to go for wickets even if it costs runs. The slower bouncer can become a decent defensive option on these big square boundaries.
It will all depend on the pace of the bowlers and how comfortable they are with that length. England have that kind of bowler aplenty. West Indies have shown they are not shy of it. India will look at Jasprit Bumrah to bowl that length. Pat Cummins will be itching to continue. Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi will do it too. Lockie Ferguson has precisely that role for New Zealand. They have all come to a country that will reward this kind of bowling more than others. How batsmen respond will be fun to watch.