Home >Sports >cricket news >The first innings conundrum in World Cup 2019

Imran Khan, the doyen of Pakistan cricketers, wanted Pakistan to bat first if they won the toss in their high-voltage match against India in the 2019 Cricket World Cup. Captain Sarfaraz Ahmed did win the toss but chose to bowl. In doing so, Pakistan did what most teams are doing this World Cup: win toss, bowl first.

In T20 cricket, this call is fast acquiring no-brainer status, especially in the Indian Premier League (IPL): teams feel they can chase down a lot and prefer to have the end goal defined for them. In the 2019 World Cup too, in 18 of the 21 completed matches, or 86% of the time, teams opted to chase, though here this choice is also perhaps influenced by the prospect of rain altering calculations midway.

Either way, the inclination to bowl first in 2019 is significantly higher than the previous three editions. But unlike the IPL, where teams chasing demonstrate a higher rate of success, the same is not seen in the 2019 World Cup. On just eight of these 18 occasions, or 38%, did the team chase down the target put before them.

Yet, they keep choosing to bowl first, and this is one of the few ways in which this World Cup is throwing up new, interesting sidelights relating to choices made in the first innings, and how these play out over the course of the match.

First-innings scores in winning causes are increasingly becoming bigger. In the 2011 World Cup, for instance, the median score of teams batting first and winning—regardless of who won the toss—was 281 runs. Put another way, in all matches in 2011 when teams defended successfully, they compiled 281 runs or more in half those matches.

In the 2015 World Cup, this number increased to 332 runs. Which is where it has stayed in 2019 also. In 10 of the first 21 matches played in 2019, teams batting first have won, and half the time they did so scoring 332 runs—an average of 6.64 runs per over—or more.

But there’s one difference in such matches between 2015 and 2019: winning margins are reducing. In 2015, the median winning margin in runs was 34%, demonstrating a continuance with 2007 and 2011 numbers. In 2019, however, the median winning margin in such matches has halved to 15% .

In other words, even when they are losing while batting second, teams are coming closer to chasing a target than before. Which perhaps also explains their inclination to bowl first on winning the toss despite a low success rate.

For sides batting first, this World Cup has been one of extremes. In 11 of the 21 matches, the team batting first has scored less than 250 runs. In another 9 matches, they have exceeded 300 runs. In just one match has the first-innings score been between 251 and 300 runs.

This is a change from the previous three editions when a greater proportion of matches were seeing first-innings scores in the 251-300 runs band. In 2011, when the tournament was held in the sub-continent, the first-innings score in a quarter of the 49 matches was in this band.

Match outcomes also demonstrate a similar lopsidedness. In matches where the first-innings score is below 250 runs, teams are showing a greater tendency to chase them down. In 2019, of the 11 matches where the target was below 250 runs, teams chased them down on 10 occasions. Or, 91%. In 2011, by comparison, teams managed to do that only 78% of the time.

At the other end of the spectrum, a first-innings score of 300 is holding up very well in this World Cup, better than the previous two editions. Of the nine times that teams have scored more than 300 runs in the first innings in 2019, only once have they lost .

The winning side on that occasion was Bangladesh, which has been putting in a doughty show through the tournament and which chased down 322 against the West Indies.

Then again, the good sides find different ways to win. India, for example in this World Cup, has chased down 227 against South Africa, defended 300-plus against Australia and Pakistan, and 224 against Afghanistan. It won the toss twice, against Australia and Afghanistan, and it opted to bat on both occasions—something that has been a rarity in this World Cup.

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