Where are the Competitive Matches?

The 2015 Cricket World Cup is now two days old, and a full four games have been played. While they’re have been some dazzling individual performances and no shortage of drama or atmosphere, one element has been missing. In fact, it is the main factor that can make a global tournament so exciting. Thus far there has been a desperate lack of competitive matches. You couldn’t call a single contest close. To be honest, ‘contest’ is an unfair word for the Australia – England game. So why has there been such a dearth of tightly contested games?

Perhaps fundamentally there is a two-tier system at play in the ODI game nowadays. There appears to be a top table containing both host nations alongside South Africa, and from time to time India. Below them sit Sri Lanka, Pakistan, England and the West Indies. If this is true of the ODI game, then you could argue that we have just been unlucky in that the fixtures have thrown up four early mismatches. But it isn’t just that sides have been losing, it is the manner of the defeats.

All four matches have been won by the sides batting first, all four sides have posted a score in excess of 300 and then defended it easily. The margins of victory thus far have been 98, 111, 62 and 76 runs respectively. No side has even come within touching distance of overhauling their opponent’s score. Ironically, it is the weakest side, Zimbabwe, who have came closest as they raced to 191/2 in their match with South Africa.

I don’t buy the argument that we have just seen four guaranteed one-sided matches so far. For me, the cause lies in the conditions, regulations, and mentality.

The conditions are such in this World Cup that the bat looks set to dominate the ball. The four 300+ first innings totals so far are testament to that. It is in the last 10 overs of the innings that the bat has been particularly belligerent. If we overlook some very suspect death bowling for the moment, something very difficult to do as an England supporter, then we can appreciate the skill that has been on show in accelerating first innings’. This dramatic upping of the tempo is facilitated by, on the whole, true pitches with consistent bounce and good pace. I think that if the pitches remain the same throughout the tournament we will continue to see scores well in excess of 300.

Allied to batting friendly pitches, the current playing conditions also make it easier than ever to rack up a colossal total. The limit on the number of fielders outside the rope has certainly helped batting sides to compile larger totals. Only four fielders are allowed outside the 30-yard circle, and in the last 10 overs that often doesn’t seem nearly enough.

These high totals are of course irrelevant when discussing the competitiveness between sides, unless we argue that side batting second cannot reach the same batting heights. From the evidence of the World Cup, at this time I would argue exactly that. First and foremost the mentality when batting second is different; accelerating in the last 10 overs is often seen as too risky a ploy. Most sides feel the pressure to score at six or seven runs per over from the outset when chasing in excess of 300. This pressure can be particularly acute when playing in a tournament as important as the World Cup However; sides batting first often start more circumspectly. It is a curiosity of the modern one-day game, that attitudes towards batting have shifted so spectacularly when batting first, but when batting second sides have not appeared to adapt with such speed. There are of course some monumental run chases in modern ODI cricket, but as a whole it feels as though teams have not embraced the aggressive approach so lovingly in the second innings. I think this differing second innings mentality is a main reason as to why we are not seeing truly competitive matches.

Of the four games completed so far, two of these have been day/night affairs. This is another reason why this World Cup is going to so heavily favour the side batting first. In Australasian conditions, where dew is not a factor, batting at night becomes a less enticing proposition. Bowling second gives you the advantage of not only knowing the score that you’re defending, but also a chance to field out of the afternoon heat; particularly important in some of the Australian venues.

Having said all this, I now fully expect the next few World Cup games to feature a few dashing chases, and sides getting skittled whilst batting first. It’s always the way. But I’ll stick by my theory; the conditions at this World Cup are just not conducive to chasing. I am however hopeful that tonight’s match between Ireland and the West Indies could prove to be the first genuinely competitive match of the World Cup. A few months ago, who would have thought we’d be saying that?

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