Who says cricket has changed?
Just a few days before the 2019 World Cup started, this writer took a nostalgic trip down the memory lane to the 1999 World Cup, the last time England hosted the event. This writer then longingly reminscined about how cricket in that era was vastly different to the power hitting we expected to see in this edition – green pitches, damp decks and scores of 300 being a benchmark.
As it turned out, we shouldn’t have worried. The game might have progressed leaps and bounds and 400 might have become a norm. But when the World Cup returned to England and the fun-and-games actually started, one thing was clear – the more some things change, the more they remain the same.
400? Not a chance
As the dust settles around that miraculous final on Sunday and England prepare for their victory parade, the abiding reminder from the 2019 Cricket World Cup will be how it embraced all shades of retro. Forget all that talk of 500 from the beginning of the tournament – not one team even managed to score 400 in the tournament proper with the highest total being England’s 397/6 against Afghanistan. In fact, 350 itself was only breached four times, proving that all the fears of flat pitches was unfounded. The average first innings score in the 1999 edition was only 218 – twenty years later, the same figure for the 2019 edition is 271.
Nowhere was this trend more evident in the last three matches, arguably the most important of the tournament. New Zealand strained every sinew they had to reach 239 against India and then Virat Kohli’s men huffed and puffed in vain, only to stop at 221, in the first semi-final. Australia always looked like they would struggle to get 250, let alone 300 in the second semi-final and were easily overhauled by a rampaging England. And the less we talk about that final, the better – both teams sprinted, struggled, grunted, agonized...all just to reach 241.
Lay off the pitches
This trend of low-scoring matches garnered plenty of criticism. Sri Lanka complained about the fact they were forced to play on “unfair” pitches while Johnny Bairstow slammed the pitches during England’s mid-tournament slump, complaining that “They’re not the typical wickets we’ve been playing on over two and a bit years”. The criticism was echoed during the India vs New Zealand semi-final as well - Mark Waugh terming the Old Trafford surface “not great” and Mark Butcher going one step further and calling the pitches at the tournament “garbage”.
The International Cricket Council even had to jump to their own defence, clarifying that they were not to blame for the low-scoring pitches.
But honestly speaking, the fuss is overstated.
Come on, guys. Hand on your hearts, how many of you didn’t enjoy the bowling resurgence we witnessed at this tournament? Sure, 400 x 380 matches can provide their own excitement but honestly, do these matches really provide a test of proper bowling skill? After a point, these matches became more of a tussle between which batsmen makes the least mistakes rather than whether bowlers can actually draw those mistakes. There are huge hits, innumerable boundaries and ultimately, you tend to go home with your senses numbed rather than excited.
The bowlers have their say
And it’s here where the World Cup has seen a wonderful change. In England over the last two months, bowlers have been given a voice and oh, they’ve had plenty to say. After a long time, batsman have been hopping around, taking evasive action, swishing in mid-air – absolutely unsure of what to do, at times. Between the likes of Mitchell Starc, Jofra Archer, Jasprit Bumrah and a whole lot of other bowlers, the game has become so much more exciting. Batsmen have suddenly no longer had the freedom to just come in and swing through the line – bowlers be damned. Instead, they’ve been forced to graft, build partnerships and take it for the long haul.
There’s cricketing skill in this aspect as well. Understanding which bowlers to respect and which bowlers to target, backing yourself to take a risk, keeping your head about you while everyone else around is losing theirs. These are also skills of batsmanship and those who excelled at these skills (like a Kane Williamson who was declared the Player of the Series) were rewarded. When bowlers have something to work with, the game really does become a battle between bat and ball, rather than bat and bat.
The 2019 World Cup should be celebrated for its low scores, different pitches and for revealing facets of the game that had slipped under the radar in the last decade or so. And this is a good look as well for the much-maligned One-Day International format, which had been caught between the Test and the Twenty20 formats. ODIs cannot be extended versions of Twenty20 – they have their own grammar, tuning and themes. Perhaps, it’s time for all of us to offer a standing ovation to the 2019 CWC for bringing back a cerebral note to a format which many feared had been lost.