ICC World Cup: Pace like fire, capricious pitches and other top tactical trends

Special ICC World Cup: Pace like fire, capricious pitches and other top tactical trends
The International Cricket Council (ICC) Cricket World Cup 2019 Trophy is seen during its tour at the National Stadium in Karachi, Pakistan on October 7, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 06 July 2019

ICC World Cup: Pace like fire, capricious pitches and other top tactical trends

ICC World Cup: Pace like fire, capricious pitches and other top tactical trends
  • Pitches had a major impact on games, upending plans for many teams including England
  • The return of pure pace, ineffectiveness of spin and an aversion to chasing were major patterns in the series

KARACHI: With the final four semifinal spots at the cricket World Cup virtually guaranteed, it is an opportune moment to look back at what have been the major tactical trends at this tournament. 
To start off, rain was one of the main characters of the series. Indeed, one of cricket’s enduring pleasures, and idiosyncrasies, is that factors like the weather, the toss and the pitches can have an outsized impact on the match. Thus, despite four years of feverish discussions about how this World Cup would see 500 runs in an innings and every batting record being broken, the actual tournament saw rain converting flat tracks to sticky, tricky ones that lost their pace over the course of a match.
“The nature of the pitches have surprised me,” Freddie Wilde, an analyst for cricket analytics website Cricviz.com, told Arab News. “I thought they’d be flatter than this. We’ve seen such good conditions for batting in England in recent years that I didn’t think they would change so drastically for the tournament itself.” 
The capricious nature of the pitches had an immediate impact on games, upending plans for many teams, not least England.
“Given how the likes of England had mastered the art of chasing — they hadn’t lost a single match chasing in almost 4 years at home — I expected a lot of teams to chase down big totals,” Rehan ul Haq, the manager of the Pakistan Super League team Islamabad United, said. 
Instead, as Wilde pointed out, teams quickly began changing years of planning once they realized how futile chasing was: “Initially we saw teams opting to chase 16/19 matches but the chasing team won less than half those matches. Since then, 12 of the 19 toss winners have chosen to bat and they have won 14 matches.”
Pakistani statistician Mazhar Arshed, part of the World Cup’s broadcasting team, noted another trend in batting, which seems to have also been inspired by the changing pitches. 
“What has stood out to me was how much the two top sides, Australia and India, put a price on their wickets in the first power play,” Arshed said. “Throughout the tournament (as of Thursday’s matches) India lost just four wickets in that period in all its matches, and Australia lost only six. Similarly, Australia’s David Warner scored one of his slowest 50s at this tournament, while India’s Rohit Sharma scored his slowed ever 100 at this event.”
Expanding on this, Wilde said winning teams had averaged 78 for the first wicket and losing teams had averaged just 18 in the first innings. 
“That’s a huge disparity,” he said. But he also offered an insight into how this tactic might still need to change in the final round of matches, arguing that “after two weeks of hot weather and some worn pitches, teams might need to be a bit more proactive early on.”
On the bowling side, Rehan pointed out that the major trend had been the return of pure pace. 
“Over the last few years, you have heard [a lot] about how pure pace is dying and how raw pace can scare any batsman on any pitch,” Haq said. “The likes of Jofra Archer, Mitchell Starc, Lockie Ferguson, Jasprit Bumrah etc., have proven that in this World Cup. Raw pace is back and it is still as scary and lethal as it was.” 
Rehan’s fellow manager at Islamabad United, Hassan Cheema, agreed with that view and noted that teams had turned to using pace in the middle overs, which had the knock-on effect of the weakest bowlers being bowled between the 30th and 40th overs, leading to those overs becoming “mini death-overs.”
Another major takeaway from the bowling tactics has been the ineffectiveness of spin. Mazhar Arshad expressed his surprise at the disparity between pace and spin, noting that squad selections for most teams suggested they also hadn’t expected such a mismatch. 
Fascinatingly, the slowness of the pitches seems to have helped pacers more than spinners. Rehan noted that one of the major sources of success for pacers had been changing their pace: “This World Cup has seen the higher percentage of wickets for pacers on cutter/slower balls than previous world cups.”
All these last minute changes have meant that the sides that have done the best have shown a lot of adaptability. Intriguingly, one major exception remains England, who have stubbornly stuck to their stated plan of attacking before all else. Shock defeats to Pakistan and Sri Lanka didn’t change their stance, though Wilde said dropping the spinner Moeen Ali and bringing in pacer Liam Plunkett in the must-win game against India was a huge move that might have helped put them back on track.
However, all the experts believed that Australia was the best team when it came to the use of tactics. For Cheema, this was displayed by the fact that they were “top of the table despite not having the most talent.” Wilde felt it was a tricky call to go with any one team, and agreed with Rehan that many teams had made both good and bad calls. His ultimate choice for Australia was based on the fact that they stuck to the seemingly outdated tactics of batting first and starting slow, which turned out to be hugely effective in games they could have lost.
For Haq, Australia’s use of their resources was the best out of all teams. “Their bowling plans, especially the way Starc has been utilized by [captain Aaron] Finch has been the stand-out factor,” Haq said. “Often captains have saved their strike bowler for the last few overs but Finch has given Starc the ball whenever a partnership has developed. It is no coincidence that Starc is the highest wicket-taker of this World Cup. It’s not only because he is good, it’s also because he has been given the ball at the right time.” 
Mazhar was also a fan of Australia’s bowling tactics, noting that most teams sought to bowl out their weakest bowlers when they were on top, often allowing opposition sides to come back into matches. In contrast, Australia “have always gone looking for wickets in such moments, knowing that bowling a side out quickly would mean not needing to bowl their weaker bowlers at all.”
With five of the last six World Cups in the bag, and two of the other three semifinalists never having won the tournament, Australia have somehow (yet again) found a way to figure out the tournament well before anyone else. With rain and conditions bringing back old-school approaches, their ability to adapt the quickest has them as the favorites with the tournament wrapping up. It looks like it’s going to be another triumph for the green and gold.