Four games in to the tournament, Patrick Noone looks at how some of the quick bowlers have been the standout performers so far.
Before the World Cup started, much of the talk around how the matches were likely to play out centred around batting. Flat pitches, small boundaries and some of the biggest hitters in world cricket surely pointed to scores well in excess in 300. There was even talk of the 500-run barrier being broken at some point during the competition. That could well still happen, of course, but the early exchanges of the tournament have, on the whole, gone the way of the fast bowlers.
England’s Jofra Archer set the tone in the opening game. He was fast, hostile and accurate; excluding the five slower balls Archer bowled, only two of his deliveries were below 140kph. Perhaps the delivery that embodied Archer’s performance the most was the fifth ball of his second over when his bouncer hurried Hashim Amla into miscuing a pull shot. Amla has rarely looked as troubled during his 15-year international career as he did when negotiating that delivery. So often it seems that he has more time than anyone else at the crease, such is the serenity he usually bats with, but this was different. Amla was struck on the helmet and had to retire hurt for much of the innings.
That delivery from Archer landed 10.5m from the batsman’s crease. From the six subsequent balls he bowled on a shorter length than that, South Africa’s batsmen wisely opted to leave four of them. The two that were played at – by Faf du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen – resulted in wickets.
At Trent Bridge the following day, West Indies carried on that theme of hostile fast bowling against Pakistan. Andre Russell only bowled three overs, but the first 16 of his 18 balls were short of a length and accounted for both Fakhar Zaman and Haris Sohail.
The way Pakistan played the short ball was similar to how South Africa had done so the previous day. The batsmen played a shot to the first five balls Russell bowled, with the fifth of those the wicket of Fakhar. After that, they opted to leave eight of the next ten, swaying and ducking on the crease in the face of a fiery barrage from the all-rounder. When Haris finally lost patience and played a shot, he was out.
After two matches of the World Cup, the short ball had accounted for 20 of the 26 wickets to fall to seam bowling while only two had been taken from balls on a traditional ‘good’ length.
New Zealand were the first team to buck that nascent trend when they took on Sri Lanka in Cardiff. Faced with one of the greenest pitches you’re likely to see in international cricket, the Black Caps’ seamers set about bowling full lengths, looking to exploit the seam movement on offer.
Cardiff is a venue that presents something of a dilemma for seam bowlers. On the one hand, it has offered more seam movement than any other UK venue in recent times, a fact that would ordinarily encourage a bowler to pitch it up. However, the short straight boundaries mean that such a tactic is high risk and bowlers have instead often preferred to bowl a shorter length to protect themselves from being driven down the ground.
The pitch on Saturday was so green and, given the make-up of the Black Caps’ attack New Zealand’s tactics were more or less decided for them. Trent Boult came into this World Cup in sparkling form, having taken four wickets in each of the Kiwis’ two warm up matches, but it was Matt Henry who made inroads with the new ball. New Zealand are lumbered with the ‘dark horses’ tag so often it’s become a cliché, but in that sense, it was almost fitting that it would be Henry who did the damage, rather than the more heralded Boult. Perhaps not as eye-catching as Boult, certainly not as quick as Lockie Ferguson, Henry is the darkest horse in a packed stable, but he showed exactly why he was selected in place of Tim Southee for New Zealand’s tournament opener.
Henry used the conditions to his advantage, finding more movement off the pitch than any other New Zealand seam bowler and landing 52% of his deliveries on a good length.
When pitching the ball up, Henry epitomised the risk-reward nature of bowling full at Cardiff. The nine full length deliveries he bowled cost him 12 runs, including two occasions when he was driven for four, but balls in that area also accounted for the crucial wickets of Lahiru Thirimanne and Kusal Perera.
Whether it’s hostile bouncers from Archer and Russell, or accurate fast-medium seam bowling from Henry, this tournament has already showcased some high-quality fast bowlers displaying a range of skills and causing batsmen no end of discomfort. It would be naïve and premature to suggest the bowlers are going to have it all their own way as the competition progresses; there are likely some big scores around the corner and, as ever, the bowlers will be challenged to come up with new plans to mitigate them. Likewise, as the weather becomes warmer and pitches become dryer, spinners will likely have a more prominent role than they have had to date. But right now, it’s the fast bowlers who have grabbed the early headlines and laid down a marker that batsmen aren’t going to have it all their own way in this World Cup.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.