It all started when England received a knockout punch from Bangladesh at the Adelaide Oval in the 2015 World Cup. Out of the tournament without even qualifying for the quarterfinals, the English team was forced to look at the shortcomings in their white-ball game.
Skipper Eoin Morgan and the ECB management took harsh calls. In the subsequent series against New Zealand at home, it wasn’t only a new-look England team that took the field, but the pitches were also seen in an unusually batsman-friendly avatar.
The series witnessed a total of 3,016 runs (excluding extras) at an average run-rate of 6.83 - a record number for a 5-match bilateral ODI series in the country. England scored 408 in the first ODI and chased down 350 in the fourth. In 2016, they registered a record total of 444 and two years later broke their own record, hammering the Aussies for an unthinkable 481. The last ODI series England played before the World Cup, against Pakistan, saw an average first-innings score of 356 in the four completed ODIs.
England had turned into a batting paradise. The steep rise in numbers in favor of the batsmen led to the belief that we could witness a high-scoring World Cup, with 350 being the par score – but in the event, such scores haven’t highlighted the first two weeks of the tournament.
In 30 completed innings so far, there have been nine 300-plus scores, but only twice have the totals exceeded the 350 mark. No 300-plus total has been chased down yet. In between the 2015 and 2019 World Cup, there were 10 successful 300-plus run chases in England alone.
The pressure of playing in an ICC tournament, along with the fact that pitch preparation is overseen by the ICC instead of the host nation, may have played a part in the relatively low scores this World Cup. An average run-rate of only 5.27 in the Champions Trophy 2017 exemplifies the dynamics of ICC tournaments.
An interrelated reason for the absence of sky-high scores is a factor beyond human control - the fickle English weather. The United Kingdom had witnessed the driest of conditions over the last three years. 2018, in fact, was the hottest English summer since 1976 - none of the cricketers playing this World Cup was even born then.
Between the World Cups in 2015 and 2019, only five ODIs in England ended without a result and none of them were called off without a ball being bowled. Against that, just a little over two weeks into the World Cup we have already seen games abandoned and points split in four games; three of those were washouts without even the formality of a toss.
As a result of the prevailing weather, most games have begun under cloud cover, conducive to quick bowling, and attacking Test match lines and lengths with plenty of manpower in the slip cordon. Pakistan and Sri Lanka were knocked over for scores of less than 150 against West Indies and New Zealand respectively. Afghanistan succumbed cheaply facing Nuwan Pradeep’s seam against Sri Lanka.
Five of the nine 300-plus totals in the World Cup so far have come at the Kennington Oval, the ground with the driest conditions in England and one historically supporting the slower bowlers.
At cricket.com’s launch in April, Kevin Pietersen addressed the significance of English weather in the World Cup. “If the conditions are like they were last summer, then I can say sub-continental teams will have a massive role to play in the World Cup. If they are not and it’s seaming all over, it will play into England’s favour”, said the former England batsman.
He elaborated: “The one downside for England though is that although they have the license to slog from ball one, but in those swinging and seaming conditions it’s quite difficult”.
The statement holds true for all participating nations. And the fast bowlers have taken advantage of the seaming conditions to improve their numbers in the country.
More importantly, the pacers have improved their strike and economy rates in the first 10 overs, which naturally tends to put the brakes on scoring.
And it is not just the weather. Trent Boult gave a different dimension when he said “They (the balls in use) have got a different gloss on them. Or they are painted differently, so I don’t know if you have talked about it too much but there has definitely been a little bit more swing.” The left-arm seamer compared these shinier balls with the pink balls that have been used for day-night Test cricket.
Boult himself has not taken any wickets with the new ball in this tournament thus far, but New Zealand has still taken 27 wickets with pace at an average of only 18.1 runs per wicket- the least amongst all sides in this World Cup. And this owes mostly to the way Matt Henry and Lockie Ferguson have operated.
Swing and seam is one thing, swing and seam with raw pace is a whole other ball game. Add bounce to the mix, and such relentless attack in the initial powerplay has changed the dynamic of how ODI innings are constructed – where batsmen traditionally look to take advantage of field restrictions and hit over the top, here they have been forced to defend for dear life. And it shows in the numbers:
This aspect is further highlighted when you consider the run rate for the crucial first ten over period alone:
With fast bowlers dominating the first phase of the innings, most batting sides are finding it difficult to break free at the top of the innings. And when you lose a wicket or two without too much on the board during the first ten overs, it has an impact on the side’s ability to power through the middle and death and post the sort of high scores that had become the norm in the lead up to this World Cup.
*Only the data till the 19th game of the league stage (England v West Indies on June 14, 2019) is taken into consideration