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Shahid Afridi’s heroics with the ball weren’t enough to see Pakistan through to the World Cup final. Yet, it was his much-improved bowling that was one of the key reasons for Pakistan reaching the semi-finals. True, he got some easy wickets against the associate nations, but his performance against the Test teams in this tournament isn’t to be scoffed at, with four wickets each against Sri Lanka and the West Indies.

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Yet, wickets apart, how does Afridi compare with other leading bowlers in the World Cup? Averages and strike rates are one measure, but how does one go on to measure exceptional performances of cricketers statistically? Although a team sport, it’s the head-to-head contests, the individual acts of heroism that light up games and linger in memories.

When it comes to certain sportsmen, such as Sachin Tendulkar or Dale Steyn, you expect a certain standard. A 50 from the former or a 2/45 from the latter doesn’t really make it exceptional. True, this is a broad generalization that doesn’t take into account the context of the match or the kind of pitch, etc.

One way could be to compare their performances in the tournament with their career statistics. By that measure too, Afridi is far ahead of his peers such as Brett Lee and Steyn among the top 20 wicket takers in the tournament till the second semi-final. He conceded 11 runs per wicket in the tournament, about 23 less than what he has done over his career, according to data from Castrolcricket.com.

Consider the Pakistan captain’s economy rate: He conceded one run per over less than his career economy rate. Similarly, he struck once every 18 balls, way ahead of a wicket every 43 balls throughout his career.

After Afridi, the other bowler who has exceeded his career standards by a large margin is South Africa’s Robin Peterson. In the World Cup, he conceded 16 runs per wicket compared with 37 over the course of his career. Similarly, his strike rate and economy rates, too, show a significant improvement over the career average.

In the case of batsmen, this measure of comparing averages versus career numbers may not work as successfully. That’s because averages can be distorted by the number of unbeaten innings, especially in the case of middle-order batsmen.

Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and India’s Yuvraj Singh top the list of batsmen whose tournament averages exceed their career numbers by at least 45 runs per innings. They have three not outs each, the most among the top 20 batsmen (by runs scored in this tournament).

The surprise in this list is South African Hashim Amla. Although he has scored 306 runs, his performance pales against his career achievements thus far. His impressive tournament batting average of 43.71 is significantly less than the 57 for his career. He also scored at a slower pace, accumulating 87 runs every 100 balls here compared with a career strike rate of 92. The only other batsman in the list to boast of a similar career average is England’s Jonathan Trott; and he exceeded it by nearly five runs in the World Cup.

Now, this list gives us an idea of people who have raised their standards for this tournament or let it drop, but in a sweeping way. It leaves out those sporadic acts of brilliance during key moments that can turn matches and derail campaigns. Like Munaf Patel or Ashish Nehra’s performance in Wednesday’s semi-final. They conceded a respective 4 and 3.3 runs per over and were the most economical among Indian bowlers against Pakistan. That’s more than a run less than what they have conceded per over during their careers.

With only one match left in the World Cup, it could be such singular acts of brilliance that could be the key in deciding the champion.

Graphic by Paras Jain/Mint

Respond to this column at ravi.k@livemint.com

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