A Run-Fest Awaits, and That’s a Good Thing

Amit Varma
This Cricket World Cup should get record viewership because of two reasons: One, India is the largest market for cricket, and as the event begins with an all-play-all round robin, India, like all other teams, plays more matches than usual. Two, it will be a high-scoring World Cup, and viewers love runs.

This is not a bad thing. Purists lament that the balance between bat and ball has shifted, and this diminishes the contest. This is a biased view, anchored to an old conception of what the ‘correct’ balance between bat and ball is. If the sport did not exist and was invented today, the first-ever match would probably be a low-scoring one, as teams grappled to come to terms with skills and strategy. Then, as they played more and more optimally, the par score would rise. That’s evolution, not dilution.

It is true that bats today are heavier, grounds are made smaller by boundary ropes and rules like using two balls in ODIs have helped batsmen score more runs. But the two key reasons behind the rise of par scores in the last ten years are respectable cricketing reasons that should delight all fans. One, the game has gained from new strategic insights. Two, in keeping with these insights, and the incentives of the more lucrative T20 form of the game, skills have improved across the board, for batsmen, fielders and bowlers.

Indeed, it is fitting that this World Cup is taking place right after the IPL. T20 cricket has transformed ODI cricket by changing the way players understand the dynamics of the game. Consider the evolution of one-day cricket before T20 happened. Teams played ODIs in the 70s with the rhythm of Test cricket, if slightly quicker, and it took many years for the realisation to kick-in that in the limited number of overs, more aggression was needed. Par scores in 50-over games rose up from the early 200s to the mid-200s, and then even to the late 200s. But that wasn’t yet optimal.

(image: AFP)

T20 cricket had a different grammar. Your 11 resources now had just 20 overs instead of 50. This raised the value of aggression, lowered the cost of a wicket, and increased the cost of a dot ball. Teams began T20 cricket by adopting the structure of an ODI game – pinch hit, consolidate, slog – but then realised that with so few overs and so many resources, they needed to attack more.

T20 leagues across the world became the most lucrative way for players to earn a living, especially the IPL. This changed incentives. Batsmen now prioritised aggression, and modified their games accordingly. Young batsmen coming through the system spent their 10,000 hours practising how to hit fours and sixes rather than how to shoulder arms or play forward defensive. Bowlers, similarly, had to adapt to this increased aggression by expanding their arsenal of tools. Fielders worked that much harder, now that each run saved was so much more valuable.

And it all flowed over into one-day cricket. At a strategic level, teams realised that they were undervaluing aggression not just in T20 cricket, but also in one-day cricket. And at the level of skills, batsmen who were better equipped to be more aggressive in T20 cricket now also had the tools to raise the temperature in one-dayers.

Although West Indies were the first to figure out the strategic imperatives of T20s – they won the 2016 T20 World Cup by attacking relentless from over 1 to 20 – it was England that first realised that the right way to play ODI cricket is to attack much, much more. This strategic understanding, along with the experience they have now gained in playing the game this way, makes them the best ODI team in the world right now. Since 2015, they’ve crossed 400 four times, and made 300-plus scores a habit. Whether or not they win this World Cup, they’ve set a benchmark.

While England are the clear favourites, the rest of the field is pretty even. Any team can beat any other on its day. India have their best-ever bowling attack in a World Cup, and Virat Kohli is the greatest batsman ever in this form of the game – but I am worried about their chances of winning it. The reason for that is strategic understanding. Kohli's captaincy can be dubious at times in the shorter forms of the game, and he would consistently underestimate par scores while playing for his franchise in the IPL. The team has the talent to win – but does it have the approach?

Either way, this will be an exciting World Cup with lots of runs scored, and that isn’t a bad thing. It will still be a contest between bat and ball. There will be higher scores, but the batsmen will bat better, the bowlers will lift their game, and I only hope it doesn’t bloody rain too often.

(Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for 15 years, some of it in cricket journalism as managing editor at Cricinfo. He has won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism twice.)