Are bowlers getting the upperhand again in battle with the bat?
It’s said when the eye and ear compete, the eye wins. Replace eye with bat and ear with ball and that, some speculated, would be the narrative of this ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup.
- India edge to a dramatic 11-run victory over Afghanistan in a low-scoring thriller in Southampton
- Both bowling units shine for a second day in a row following England and Sri Lanka's similar contest 24 hours earlier
It was WG Grace – the original beard that’s feared – who allegedly told an opponent, as he picked up the bails and replaced them on the stumps, that ‘they came to see me bat, not you bowl’.
That was more than a century ago, in the days when coloured clothing meant a fancy cap, so perhaps cricket has always been seen a batsman’s game.
All that pre-tournament talk of 500 run innings certainly had the world’s best bowlers arching an anxious eyebrow and desperately plotting the last laugh.
However, in 24 hours of unpredictable and unscripted sporting drama they got their wish, which underlines the danger of writing the story before you know the ending.
First it was Sri Lanka’s Lasith Malinga proving age hadn’t wearied him, as he condemned England to a shock defeat at Headingley.
Then it was Afghanistan’s spinners taming India at the Hampshire Bowl, only for the world number two side to defend a modest target in an unconventional thriller.
It was an instant classic which proves you didn’t need big hits and relentless boundaries for a match to simmer and fascinate, as India eventually secured a 11-run victory in the final over.
Virat Kohli won the toss and elected to bat – along with Messrs Sharma, Rahul and Dhoni he was ready to pile on the runs, ramp up the pressure and restore order to the batting order.
Afghanistan admitted they were hurting after being hit for an ODI record 25 sixes by England last time out but how their bowling attack responded.
Sharma – with three one-day double centuries on his India resume – went early, clean bowled by a Mujeeb Ur Rahman delivery that twisted and turned like a magic bullet.
IPL stars Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb are no strangers to India’s batting line-up and their combined 29 overs of savvy spin went for just 97 runs – and accounted for four wickets.
It was less slap and tickle and more prod and poke with 152 dot balls frustrating India, for whom only Kohli really shone.
But make no mistake, this was a textbook bowling display, straight from the pages of a dusty coaching manual, as India searched for fluency while Afghanistan followed the line and length basics – keeping it tight, straight and full.
Set 225 to win, Afghanistan knew this could be a gilt-edged chance for historic victory, only for India’s pace attack, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, to claim six decisive wickets.
Bumrah in full flow is always a joy to watch, six or seven stuttering steps, a skip and a shuffle, followed by undiluted fire and fury.
His pace, control and ability to disguise a remarkable variation of speed make him the complete bowling package, with an average and economy rate which proves the battle between bat and ball doesn’t have to be one-sided.
And he duly turned this match with two wickets in three balls, conjuring full deliveries and short ones as Afghanistan slipped from well-positioned 106/2 to a nervy 106/4.
Gulbadin Naib put up a determined rear-guard but with his team needing 24 off the last three overs, he ran into Shami and Bumrah.
Bumrah kept it tight and Shami, replacing the injured Bhuvneshwar Kumar, finished it off, dismissing Nabi and two tail-enders to grab the tenth hat-trick in ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup history.
India’s fans duly unfurled their flags, blew their horns and got ready to properly party after an afternoon of high anxiety.
We take life too lightly and sport too seriously, wrote John Arlott, that famous son of cricket here in Hampshire.
Don’t tell the Bharat Army that – unbeaten India are showing how it’s done with bat AND ball and few things mean more.
©Cricket World 2019