India's captain Virat Kohli, right, leaves the pitch after he is caught by Pakistan's captain Sarfaraz Ahmed, center, off the bowling of Pakistan's Mohammad Amir, left, during the Cricket World Cup match between India and Pakistan at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, on 16 June, 2019. (Photo: AP)
India's captain Virat Kohli, right, leaves the pitch after he is caught by Pakistan's captain Sarfaraz Ahmed, center, off the bowling of Pakistan's Mohammad Amir, left, during the Cricket World Cup match between India and Pakistan at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, on 16 June, 2019. (Photo: AP)

How the middle overs are gaining currency in ODIs

Time was when overs 11 to 40 in ODIs were about preservation and accumulation. Increasingly, they are becoming another phase to stretch possibilities

here were few bright spots for Pakistan in their 2019 world cup loss to India. But there was one spell in the game when they gave a flicker that they were in it. This was between overs 11 and 25, when Pakistan, chasing a formidable 337, added 88 at almost 6 an over while losing just one wicket. Soon after, though, its middle-order crumbled. Still, discount the loss of five wickets, and a return of 174 runs between overs 11 and 40 is decent.

As the elastic boundary of possibilities in one-day internationals (ODIs) stretches itself, buoyed in part by its younger and shorter version that is T20 cricket, the middle overs—overs 11 to 40—is one phase of the game that is finding new expressions, especially on the batting side. These expressions are challenging and, at times, dismantling the notion of what the middle overs have traditionally been about.

For the bowling side, it’s when they are able to place more fielders outside the inner circle to stem the boundaries. For the batting side, it’s when they, traditionally, went into a mode that meant taking fewer risks, accumulating before attacking at the back end of the innings. Neither construct called for stretching themselves.

Except that teams are stretching themselves, especially on the batting side. A comparison of data across World Cup games dating back to 2007 shows that teams are scoring more runs, playing fewer dot balls and striking more boundaries during the middle overs. And they are doing so while averaging more, which means they are managing the additional risk. This is in keeping with the general trend of teams scoring more prolifically in ODIs.

In the matches in our data set, the median runs scored in the first innings in the middle overs have increased from 133 runs in 2011 (when the World Cup was played in the Indian sub-continent) to 155 runs in 2015 (played in Australia) to 172 runs in 2019 (being played in England). In other words, in at least half the matches in each world cup, teams bettered this return in the middle overs.

A similar lift is seen in the second innings also

There’s greater importance placed on the middle overs as a phase in the game to squeeze out more. In the 2019 edition, in the first innings, the median share of the runs scored in the middle overs stands at 63%, against 54% in 2015 and 57% in 2011 and 2007.

Rules for the middle overs have evolved over time and have been intended to shift the balance towards bowlers. The mandatory powerplay between overs 1 to 10 has been there for a while, but what happens in the middle overs has undergone changes. For the 2007 World Cup, besides the first 10 overs, there were two five-over blocks of powerplays in the middle overs, both chosen by the bowling team and when teams could place only three players outside the inner circle.

The 2011 World Cup retained the two five-over powerplays, but allowed the batting side to choose one of them. For the 2015 World Cup, there was only one five-over block with the batting side selecting when to deploy it. In this World Cup, the additional powerplay has been replaced with a new powerplay encompassing the entire middle over period (11 to 40) during which teams cannot have more than four fielders outside the inner circle. Little surprise then the batting is overpowering the bowling during the middle overs. On the one hand, the share of dot balls in an innings is reducing: this World Cup, it has dipped below 50% for the first time. On the other hand, the share of deliveries that are struck for a four or six have increased from 6.4% in 2011 to 8.8% in 2015 to 9.2% in 2019.

The number of teams scoring a run or more in at least half the balls they faced is at an all-time high in this World Cup. Seven of the nine frontline teams have done so (Afghanistan has been excluded from this analysis), the exceptions being Sri Lanka and West Indies. For India, this is the third consecutive World Cup when it is scoring in at least 50% of deliveries—the only country to do so since 2007.

At a team level, there are quirks. In the 2019 edition, West Indies are the worst side in rotating strike, but the best in hitting boundaries, doing so in 13% of their balls faced, against an average of 9%.

As we approach the middle end of the tournament, there are two sides setting themselves apart on the batting front in the middle overs. The first is England, scoring on a leading 61% of balls faced and averaging about 64 per wicket in the middle overs. The second is India, which is averaging a leading 81 runs per wicket in the middle overs.

Only two sides have bettered this in the last four World Cups, and they played in the 2011 World Cup Final.

Harsh Gupta works at howindialives.com.

howindialives.com is a database and search engine for public data.

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