It’s a World Cup of ODIs but it has rarely been a one-size-fits-all event. It started with 60 overs per side matches that were reduced to 50 overs from 1987, had eight teams till 1987 before growing to nine (1992), 10 (2019, 2023), 12 (1996, 1999), 14 (2003, 2011, 2015) and up to 16 in 2007.
The format also was heavily modified as an extension. Till 1987, there were two groups with the top four teams playing the semi-finals but the all-play-all league system in 1992 and 2019 seemed a fairer qualifying format. Three editions (1996, 2011, 2015), had quarter-finals with Super Sixes (1999, 2003) and Super Eights (2007) in three others. Earlier, field restrictions were eased after 15 overs with one ball per innings. Now, there are three field restriction phases with two balls per innings.
Bats have become thicker, pitches more benign and the length of boundaries has changed drastically, significantly impacting team scores. Like in seven editions till 1999, only thrice had sides crossed 350 in the World Cup — West Indies (360/4 vs Sri Lanka in 1987), Sri Lanka (398/5 vs Kenya in 1996) and India (373/6 vs Sri Lanka in 1999). Since then, there have been 21 such innings, a third of them coming in 2015 alone. Threadbare analysis of any data can’t be fair to cricketers, especially the bowlers, but broader trends can be used to elaborate on a few major points.
Onus on the final push
Pinch-hitting in the first 10 overs gained as a concept in the 1990s, peaking in the 1996 edition co-hosted by India when Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana were giving Sri Lanka explosive starts; but the tendency has more or less been to consolidate after cautious starts and keeping wickets in hand for a last-phase dash.
Teams averaged 3.72 runs in the first 10 overs during the 1999 World Cup, but since 2003 it has hovered above 4.5. Remarkable has been the acceleration in the last 10 overs, however, taking off from 6.66 in 2003 to 8.43 in 2015 before dipping a bit to 7.44 in the 2019 World Cup.
Left can be right
Wasim Akram in 1992, Chaminda Vaas in 1996, Geoff Allott in 1999, Ashish Nehra in 2003, Nathan Bracken in 2007, Zaheer Khan in 2011, and Mitchell Starc in 2015 and 2019 — left-arm pacers have been match-winners, often taking their teams all the way. But India, like in 2019, haven’t picked a left-arm fast bowler despite the recent good show of Arshdeep Singh in T20s.
Pace stays relevant at the end
Fast bowlers have generally been incisive at the beginning, but the 2019 World Cup was the first edition in this millennium where they had a strike rate of over 50 (50.3) in the opening 10 overs. England in peak summer, the mercury soaring and negating overhead moisture with batters looking to make the most of the small grounds, was a death knell for fast bowlers. But it was impressive the way pacers kept taking wickets by improving their variety in the last 10 overs — striking every 13.8 deliveries in 2019, second lowest and only above 2011’s 12.9 in all editions since 2003. Barring 2015 — when it hit 8.53 — the last 10 overs economy too has been a largely acceptable average of under 7.5, meaning pacers have managed to stay relevant despite most of the playing conditions going in favour of the batters.
Evolving role of spinners
2011 remains the only edition in this millennium where a spinner topped a World Cup wickets tally (21 by Shahid Afridi, joint best with Zaheer Khan). The same could be expected this time too with every team loading up on at least three slow-arm bowlers on an average. Their roles too have changed over the years.
Spinners now open the bowling frequently, have attacking fields during the middle overs and are more accustomed to bowling in the slog overs, evident in their impressively low strike rates in the last 10 overs — 23.6 in 2003, 20.7 in 2007, 18.4 in 2011 and 25.5 in 2015. The probable reason it spiked to 38.8 in 2019 was because the English pitches didn’t assist as much turn as India’s (2011) and grounds weren’t as big as in Australia (2015) where many batters holed out. That said, spinners continue to be an expensive proposition towards the end — averaging 5.76 in the last 10 overs during the 2003 World Cup that went up to 8.03 in Australia — most likely due to the introduction of two new balls right after the 2011 World Cup.
Defend, or chase?
Chasing probably is easier because it gives more clarity to the modern batter reared on a steady diet of T20s. But ODIs are long enough to accommodate several twists and turns, as was evident in 2007, 2011 and 2015 when sides had around 50% success rate chasing. That dropped to 33.3% in 2019 despite batters having smaller boundaries to contend with. The change can’t be attributed to anything specific other than probably a shift in mentality. History though suggests India would be impartial hosts – teams have won 19 times defending and 22 times chasing in the last five years.