In this World Cup, the fielding team was allowed four men outside the thirty-yard circle. It’s different in Powerplays – it’s two outside in the first one and then three in the second – but let’s not worry about that. For the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on what happens in the other 35 overs.
Before 2012, you were allowed five men outside the circle and there seem to be two main schools of thought about the impact of the change.
- More boundaries! Hurray!
- Okay, this is getting a bit silly now.
The main issue seems to be that when the batting side start looking to hit boundaries in the final 10 overs, it’s now very hard to stop them. There’s usually at least one big gap for the batsman to aim for where he’ll probably be safe even if he mishits it. There’s also the fact that where the boundary fielders are placed tends to inform the batsman what sort of a delivery he might expect.
Put these two things together and you get a lot of runs.
Is this a bad thing?*
It’s easy to be a bit cricket hipstery about this, saying the best matches are those with low totals and whatnot, but runs aren’t intrinsically bad. What is bad is if the game becomes one-dimensional and all we see is some sort of boundary-hitting competition.
You look at some matches – often those featuring AB de Villiers – and it feels like that’s what we’re getting. But look at who did well in this tournament. The best teams didn’t thrive because of the runs they scored so much as because of the wickets they took.
Shifting the emphasis
We’ll not write about Mitchell Starc again, suffice to say that he’s been a revelation and with Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Johnson in the side, he had incisive support. New Zealand too attacked with the ball and so too, weirdly, did India. South Africa reached the semi-finals after bowling Sri Lanka out for 133 and Pakistan might have done better had they had even a middling batting line-up to support their wicket-taking bowlers.
The sides that did badly were generally those with defensive approaches to bowling. Before the tournament, much of the talk was about how England would need to make 350 consistently to be in with a chance of competing. If this was intended as a message to the batsmen, it was the bowlers who listened. They seemed resigned to damage limitation from the outset and achieved nothing. West Indies too fielded a somewhat insipid attack and suffered.
The potential for free scoring at the death saw sides place greater emphasis on earlier overs and the aim was to get batsmen out. If you didn’t leave the opposition in an at-least-moderately-fragile position by the 40th over, you were going to be on the receiving end of a hundred hand slap.
Then and now
Is this so bad? Taken in isolation, the late innings near-free-hittery does seem unfair, but it also seems to have encouraged sides to attack with the ball and that, in our eyes, is no bad thing at all.
Think back a few years and the one-day game seemed to be spiralling downwards into some sort of Hades almost entirely populated by part-timers ‘keeping it fairly tight’. No-one went for wickets at any point. You balanced attack and defence at the start, bowled Suresh Raina for seven overs in the middle and then tried to keep things manageable with wide yorkers and slower ball bouncers at the death.
It was shit.
Compare the top-ranked bowlers on 31st March 2012 under the old rules with the top-ranked bowlers now.
Back then: Lonwabo Tsotsobe was the number one bowler and the top ten contained plenty of spinners – Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Hafeez, Graeme Swann, R Ashwin, Dan Vettori and Shakib al Hasan.
Now: Mitchell Starc is number one and the spinners that remain are wicket-takers – Imran Tahir, Ajmal, Sunil Narine and Shakib.
There is a concern in that spinners do seem to have been marginalised at this World Cup, but two things to note are that Australia and New Zealand aren’t famously spin-friendly countries and, more importantly, several of the most effective spinners from over the last few years (Ajmal, Narine and Hafeez) weren’t here.
Vettori, Tahir and Ashwin also hinted that there is still a place for spinners under these fielding restrictions, provided you’re good enough, so overall we’d consider ‘four fielders out’ to have resulted in a net gain.
There is sometimes chaos at the end of an innings, but chaos isn’t bad. And set against that is how bowling sides approach things at the other end of the innings. Respectable fast-medium seamers deliver little of consequence, while fast bowlers who can properly bounce people and hit the stumps are proving invaluable. It isn’t perfect, but that seems an improvement to us.