Mumbai: In the run-up to the cricket World Cup, newspaper columns, television chat shows and drawing room discussions all centre around batting, batsmanship and astronomical strike rates. After all, the World Cup will be played on flat subcontinental pitches with knee-high bounce. These are arenas where mis-hits can sail through for a six and the stodgiest of batsmen appears swashbuckling.
Captains talk confidently about chasing 100 runs in the last 10 overs and team strategies and speculation—not least in India’s case — seem to revolve around who will bat where in the batting order. Scores of over 300 are passé and no total is beyond reach.
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It’s taken for granted that pitches are flat, grounds are small, therefore bowlers will leak runs; so let’s concentrate on out-hitting and out-scoring the opposition. Spare a thought for the flingers, as a look at the previous editions will highlight their value.
In five of the nine previous Cups, the champion team had the highest wicket-taker in the tournament. In most other editions, the highest wicket-taker belonged to the runner-up, or a semi-finalist. Sure, more wickets by itself doesn’t mean anything, for these bowlers would have played more matches by virtue of going further in the tournament. But a more telling statistic is the averages of these champion bowlers, be it Australia’s Glenn McGrath in 2007 or India’s Roger Binny in 1983.
These World Cup-winning bowlers gave away less than 20 runs a wicket and had among the five best averages in each tournament.
McGrath picked up 26 wickets in 2007 in the West Indies, the most in a single tournament, at 13.73 runs per wicket. In the 1983 event in England, Binny got 18 wickets at 18.66 runs apiece for the winning Indian team, leading captain Kapil Dev to declare him his most valuable player in the competition.
Who can forget Shane Warne’s 20 wickets in the 1999 World Cup in England? Devastating performances came first against South Africa in the semi-final—when he took four wickets for 29 runs and single-handedly brought back Australia from the brink—and then against Pakistan in the final with four for 33.
Even when the champion team didn’t have the highest wicket taker, they had other bowlers who figured high in the list. Like Brett Lee in the 2003 World Cup, for instance. He scalped 22 for winners Australia at less than 18 runs apiece, one wicket behind Chaminda Vaas of semi-finalist Sri Lanka.
Nor can these bowlers’ strike rates (number of deliveries bowled per wicket taken) be scoffed at. The highest wicket-taker in all tournaments mostly figured among bowlers with the leanest strike rates. McGrath had the best strike rate in the previous edition, taking a wicket approximately every three overs he bowled while Binny’s performance figures among the top five in 1983. In the 1987 World Cup in India, winner Australia’s Craig McDermott struck every four overs while Lee in 2003 took a wicket every 22 balls.
“Bowlers win matches,” says Balwinder Singh Sandhu, a member of the 1983 World Cup-winning squad. “Yes, batsmen do well, but in World Cups, bowlers have performed above their capacity and that’s what wins you the Cup.”
The 1996 World Cup doesn’t exactly conform to the statistical trend. Anil Kumble, with 15 wickets, was the most successful, but India bowed out in the semi-final. Winner Sri Lanka’s Sanath Jayasuriya and Mutthiah Muralitharan scalped seven apiece but didn’t figure anywhere near the top of the strike rate or averages as Lanka won on the strength of its batting.
At the start of the first Indian Premier League (2008), former South African bowler Shaun Pollock said, “A dot ball in Twenty20 is like gold.”
The same could be said for the World Cup in India. So while one can wish for Sachin Tendulkar to score numerous centuries, for the World Cup to come home, pray that Zaheer Khan and/or Harbhajan Singh rediscover their mojo and shackle the big hitters of the opposition.
Graphic by Yogesh Kumar/Mint