At the halfway stage of the World Cup, we have seen the future of one-day cricket. And it is remarkably like the past. In its infancy, the game was about positive batsmanship and negative bowling; in its teens it was about keeping wickets in hand in the first part of the innings, then accelerating, and finally hitting out in the ‘slog overs’. Bowlers had realised by then that the best way to keep runs down was to take wickets. That was in the 1980s, and that’s how it is now.
The top three in the batting order see no need to take chances, to work at creating new shots or to slip into T20 gear prematurely. On the larger grounds in England, the best batsmen make use of gaps in the field, run like hares and put away the bad ball. Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Shakib Al Hasan all exemplify this.
Like a good novel, most innings have a beginning, a middle and an end, each with its own texture and objectives. The specific over when the transition takes place might vary, though.
Slog overs are back
It is interesting that in some cases, the PowerPlay has yielded less than six an over, and yet the teams have crossed 320. Keeping wickets in hand — the mantra of the 80s — is back again. Slog overs are back too, and a round hundred in the last ten overs is a given for the top teams.
That the semifinalists have more or less been identified reduces the second half of the league stage to an exercise in fulfilling the imperatives of the fixtures list. If the World Cup has to make the journey from the predictable to the memorable, there will need to be stunning upsets in the second half.
The odd victory will not do, teams in the bottom half will have to win their remaining matches and hope for other permutations to fall into place to keep India, England, Australia and New Zealand from making the semifinals. Theoretically, Afghanistan apart, all teams are still alive in the tournament; outside of the top four, West Indies have a positive net run rate, and they could still break in.
If India have looked the best team so far, it has to do with their ability to find players who slip in and out of roles easily. Shikhar Dhawan injured? K L Rahul fills the breach admirably. Bhuvaneswar Kumar pulls out? Vijay Shankar steps in. Mohammad Shami is yet to play while Kuldeep Yadav seems to have found his mojo.
He dismissed Babar Azam with the ball of the tournament. And despite scores of 82 and 77 in his last two matches, skipper Virat Kohli is not yet at his best, which is good news for India. They continue to be dependent on the top three batsmen, and haven’t really been tested so far, which might be a handicap.
In a tournament lasting 46 days, there are three dangers facing a team, especially one which begins well. India will have to guard against complacency, especially after their comfortable win against Pakistan. Secondly, there is the matter of peaking too early; pacing yourself is as important in individual sports like tennis (at the Grand Slams, for instance) as it is in team games. Finally, there is the matter of injury. As the tournament gets into the knockout stages, the best eleven players must take the field, so fitness becomes crucial. Sometimes a really tough match helps bring everything together.
The other potential semifinalists have their problems. England’s Jason Roy and Eoin Morgan walked off the field with injuries in the West Indies game, but Root has been an unqualified success, and Chris Woakes at number three has been impressive. Like India, England too have players who enjoy a challenge outside their comfort zones.
Australia seem over-reliant on Mitchell Starc to deliver, especially when the team is in trouble. Their batting is gradually coming together, and when they get the balance right, they could give any team a run for their money. New Zealand too haven’t had a tough game before their South Africa match today. The totals they had to chase so far — 136, 244 and 172 — have not stretched their batting line-up.
These are early days yet, but so far the tournament has been heading in the direction of the predicted final: India vs England. If that happens on July 14, it will be interesting to see which team has the greater ‘home’ support. England, who last played a final at home in 1979, or India, who, consider Lord’s and MCG, The Wanderers and many others around the world their ‘home’ ground thanks to the large number of their supporters who turn up to cheer them.