Innovation and the World Cup
Russell Degnan

So, the final. After 50 games, we've reached a conclusion that could have been predicted after just four. The only two teams with the depth and dimensions of play to carry their form through-out two months of seemingly endless cricket will decide the prize. One by one the other test sides have departed.

India and Pakistan were a surprise, but the record of minnows in the past is of both crushing defeats and unexpected wins. Those two sides, with a lack of professionalism that lies in stark contrast to the seriousness with which they approach the game should have done better.

Good cup competitions carry some momentum to the final, but this one has been halting. It is a surprise then, that no team seems to have shifted gear as it has progressed. Australia and Sri Lanka started fast, and will hopefully finish the same way. England and the West Indies started at a crawl and only raised their game to farewell each other.

Good cup competitions also offer something new. And it has been to the further detriment of this one that, to date, no side has taken the game another step further. This is doubly surprising given the remarkable games that preceeded it.

It has not always been so. The 1987 tournament was won by an Australian team who perfected both their fielding, and the use of all-rounders to increase their batting depth. Waugh and O'Donnell pioneered the subtle arts of both defensive bowling and attacking batting, and one of the worst test teams in the world carried away the cup.

By 1992 England - who are always professional even as they refuse to take one-day cricket seriously - had taken this tactic to the ultimate extreme, playing no less than five all-rounders at times. England were a good side then, but they lost twice. Once to the brilliance of Pakistan, and once by the tactical nous of Martin Crowe.

The first, still underused innovation was to open with Dipak Patel, an innocuous off-spinner who nevertheless proved unhittable on dead New Zealand pitches. With Mushtaq Ahmed leading the way for Pakistan, and Warne and Muralitharan shortly to arrive on the scene, spin was back in one-dayers.

The second, while generally credited to Sri Lanka's 1996 win, was to send in Mark Greatbatch to take advantage of the fielding restrictions. In a world cup where most openers had strike-rates in the low 60s, Greatbatch's was 87.92. Except for Greatbatch no batsman hit more than one six per game. He hit 14 in seven. The value of these tactics came to the fore against England. The in-form team of the world cup was not merely beaten but crushed. In a time when most games went to the last few overs, New Zealand won with 9 to spare.

It is something of an irony - or an English bias - that Sri Lanka's world cup victory is remembered for fireworks at the top of the order, since, the mauling of England apart, the victory was as much to do with the bowling of their part-time spinners in the middle overs, and the batting of Aravinda de Silva as their attack. Nevertheless by 1999 all teams had concluded the same thing (ironically, the very thing that Pakistan won the 1992 world cup doing): it was no longer possible to build up pressure from a big score; your best bowlers had to get wickets early in order to protect the all-rounders in the middle overs. Australia did this best, on the back of McGrath, and then Warne, with South Africa, using Donald and Pollock a close second.

By 2003 though, Michael Bevan had almost single handedly changed the art of a chase. Inzaman ul Haq and Lance Klusener had, in times past, propelled their teams to improbable victories even as the required run rate tipped 8 and 9 an over. But Bevan turned this into an art form. No target was safe unless he was out. Where once teams reverted to mindless slogging to raise their total, Bevan, then later, Ponting, Martyn and then other nations, turned the middle overs into an anatomy lesson, disecting fields and running up enormous totals with a mix of controlled, well placed hitting.

Unsurprisingly, this change has coincided with a view that one-day games are predictable, boring, and frequently one-sided. The ability of players to chase any total has meant that a bowling side needs to not only get early wickets, but must bowl a side out completely (or at least 8 or 9 down) in order to win. This latter point is drawn out by the evidence, of not only this world cup, but previous ones as well, where no major team has lost a chase with less than 7 wickets down in the past 20 years (rain affected games excepted).

What this means for the final is clear. The winner will be the team who bowls the other out (or the chasing team if neither do). But what about one-day cricket generally.

In an attempt to lessen the boredom, administrators have extended the fielding restrictions for more overs, and forced players into attacking fielding positions. Yet, by the reckoning of the modern game this is irrelevant. If a team needs wickets to win, a team that tried to stop runs will lose. The fielding restrictions have, if anything, merely made it hard for captains to recognise the importance of old-fashioned things like slips or close-in fielders.

But also, the longest running restriction of all - the one that limits bowlers to a fifth of the innings length - is a major impediment to attacking cricket. It forces captains to use their "fifth" bowler in the middle of the innings, pushing them onto the defensive, and allowing chasing teams to regroup or attack. Australia - despite repeatedly failed to capitalise on early wickets and subsequently losing games they shouldn't have - benefit further from the restrictions because their fifth bowler is better than anyone else's (yes, even Watson).

One-day cricket after this world cup should not be furthered restricted - as is the remit of adminsitrators - but freed. Most fielding and all bowling restrictions should be removed. It may not make games any closer, but at least we will see good captains try and make them so.

Cricket - Articles 28th April, 2007 21:14:56   [#] [4 comments]