“What I have seen in this World Cup so far is that if you don’t pick up early wickets, you’re in trouble.”
It’s fair to say Waqar Younis knows a thing or two about setting up batsmen and the former fast bowler is far from the only luminary to preach the gospel of wickets in the Powerplay.
While ahead of the World Cup, a lot of talk was about flat pitches and high-scoring games, the batsmen have not as good a time as was expected. Most matches have witnessed a good contest between bat and ball.
With two new white balls, 10:30 (local time) starts and slip fielders waiting with baited breath – all in helpful English conditions – the seam bowlers have made their mark in the World Cup. The leading wicket-takers list in this World Cup has been dominated by the pacers so far. The toss has played a crucial role, as has the rain and overcast conditions in the middle part of the tournament.
Two-thirds of the way through the World Cup 2019 group stage, what do the numbers reflect?
It ain’t got that swing
There are no two ways about it: the ball has not swung as much as expected at this edition of the World Cup.
The average swing generated by bowlers sits at 0.649°, compared to 1.130 in the Caribbean in 2007 and 0.993 in Australia and New Zealand last time out. In fact the extent of swing is comparable to the 2011 World Cup, coming in at 0.637°, held in the subcontinent where pitches tend to either be dry or slow and low.
And 10:30 starts make no appreciable difference. After Australia’s win over Sri Lanka, it was found that the ball swung exactly 0.65° in the Powerplay of both first and second innings.
Toss is boss?
It has taken a while for captains to wise up. Only one of the first seven skippers to win a toss in the tournament chose to bat first – that was Afghanistan in their defeat by Australia at Taunton.
At one stage just 18% of toss winners elected to bat first, significantly lower than any other edition of the showpiece aside from 1979, also held in England. This changed appreciably in the fourth week of the group stage. Opening stands like India’s 131 against Pakistan and Australia’s 121 against Bangladesh seem to have planted a seed.
From Match 24 to Match 30 inclusive, five teams chose to make first use of the pitch and they all came away with victories. New Zealand, chasing, needed the final over to beat South Africa.
Across the competition, batting first or second has had no real impact on making a quick start. On average, teams batting first score 44.25 per wicket in the Powerplay and 42.63 batting second.
Opening batsmen have actually had a rare old time at the 2019 World Cup, with first-wicket partnerships more prolific than at almost any time in the tournament’s history.
First wicket stands have averaged 44.36 this summer, with only 2011, when they averaged 45.20, seeing openers make more hay. They yielded 31.18 on average in 2015, 29.23 in 2007 and 35 in 2003.
Openers have been particularly severe on length bowling, traditionally the most profitable option up front, giving the new ball the best chance to swing. Balls on a length from seamers in the first ten overs have caused problems in the past in World Cups, but batsmen have a batting average against it twice that of four years ago.
In 2019 batsmen average 44.04 runs and length bowling has taken 23 wickets compared to an average of 22.58 and 79 wickets back in 2015.
Australia and India’s excellence in opening stands has continued, Sri Lanka have overhauled their approach, West Indies’ struggles continue and South Africa are underperforming.
Aaron Finch and David Warner have combined for 447 runs in six innings, continuing a trend that sees Australia average 53.81 for the first wicket in ODIs since 2015, the highest in the world.
India have lost Shikhar Dhawan to injury but the form of replacement KL Rahul suggests they can continue to set the tone at the top - having amassed 18 centuries with their first wicket since 2015.
Tinkering seemed to hold Sri Lanka back between 2015 and 2019, trying 22 opening combinations, but Dimuth Karunaratne’s return sees them average 65 at this World Cup compared to an overall 40.
Aside from their century stand in their only victory, over Afghanistan, South Africa’s opening average has sunk from 50 to 27.
West Indies, whose openers have produced just two centuries and ten fifties since 2015, have failed to find a formula in England & Wales as the only team not to muster a half-century stand.
Yet cricket always has the scope to surprise, and New Zealand made unwanted history when both Colin Munro and Martin Guptill were dismissed first ball against West Indies. This is just the sixth time both openers have been dismissed in the first over of an ODI.
Stats courtesy International Cricket Council media zone. The article has been lightly edited.