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Feature

Trent Boult: A World Cup great who isn't having a great World Cup

Bowling in the powerplay is his forte, but the leader of New Zealand's attack hasn't enjoyed his usual success in the first ten overs of this World Cup

Trent Boult is on the cusp of joining the 50-wickets club in World Cups  •  ICC via Getty Images

Trent Boult is on the cusp of joining the 50-wickets club in World Cups  •  ICC via Getty Images

Trent Boult is a World Cup great. He's been a central figure in New Zealand reaching back-to-back finals, and he's on the cusp of joining Glenn McGrath, Muthiah Muralidaran, Mitchell Starc, Lasith Malinga and Wasim Akram in the 50-World-Cup-wickets club.
Trent Boult is a World Cup great, but he isn't having a great World Cup. The 2015 and 2019 tournaments brought him 39 wickets in 19 games at an average of 21.79 and an economy rate of 4.61. The corresponding numbers for 2023: 10 wickets in eight games at 38.10 and 5.36.
There are many ways to look at these numbers. One, no doubt, is to connect them to the general trajectory of Boult's career. He went freelance, didn't he? He picked and chose when he'd show up for New Zealand, didn't he, playing just 11 of their last 30 ODIs before this World Cup, and just three of their 14 ODIs in Asia?
Was he, you may ask, at peak preparedness when he turned up in India to play this World Cup?
Dig deeper into his numbers, and the picture becomes more troubling. The first 10 overs are where Boult does his best work. Since 2015, no one has taken more first-powerplay wickets at World Cups than Boult's 22, but 2023 has only brought him three first-powerplay wickets in eight games, at an average of 59.33 and an economy rate of 5.39. It isn't as if he has been particularly unlucky either, his diminished returns in this phase tallying with improved control figures for batters facing him.
There are mitigating circumstances, though, which his captain Kane Williamson pointed to when asked on Wednesday about Boult's new-ball performances, and New Zealand's, at this World Cup.
"Without a doubt he's world class and there's probably a few factors there," Williamson said. "The second half or a few of these games that we've had, the pitches have been very good and players have been playing really well. And perhaps [it also matters] whether you're playing day games or night games. It can be quite dependent on the assistance you might get as well with the new ball.
"So, there are a lot of factors, but ultimately, it's about looking to adapt and adjust your game. And if you're always trying to get wickets and you're trying to get early wickets - but if it isn't to happen then it's about trying to win other parts of the game and adjusting. And I mean he's very experienced and done that on a number of occasions and yes, there's another opportunity tomorrow for the guys to go out and operate and certainly try and apply their skills as well as they can and see what happens."
This has been a weird World Cup for new-ball bowlers, who have looked unplayable at some venues, particularly under lights, and taken a pounding at others. Boult and New Zealand have been unfortunate that their games have largely come at venues that haven't been conducive to new-ball movement.
For all that, though, there have been times during this World Cup when Boult has looked far below his best, conditions notwithstanding. Most notable was his new-ball spell at the Chinnaswamy Stadium during New Zealand's defence of 401 against Pakistan. Anyone could have gone for plenty that day, on that surface, and against Fakhar Zaman in that kind of mood. But where Tim Southee did his best to limit the early damage by banging away on a length, keeping the stumps in play, and restricting width, Boult routinely gave Fakhar room to free his arms or strayed onto his pads or offered up slot balls.
As disappointed as he may have been with the outcome - 0 for 50 from six overs on the day - Boult must have been livid with himself for letting his processes go awry. Bowlers have small margins for error when they're looking to bowl attacking lengths, as Boult was that day, but bowlers with his skill and experience don't usually miss by that much, and that often, with their execution.
One benefit of all that experience and know-how, though, is that they enable cricketers to recover quickly from setbacks. For Boult, there's no better time to do that than Thursday against Sri Lanka. New Zealand have lost their last four games, back-to-back, but know that a win will give them a strong grip on the fourth semi-final slot. The experience of 2019 will tell them that losing steam towards the end of a league campaign is no impediment to coming within inches of winning a World Cup.
They'll be back at the unforgiving Chinnaswamy, but this time they'll be able to call on something close to their first-choice bowling attack. Boult is the leader of that attack, in good times and bad, and he'll want to do everything in his power to ensure that this won't be his final World Cup game.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo