Afghan Exploits Show How Much The World Cup – And Cricket – Has Changed
Any cricket fan who checks out footage of early World Cups can be forgiven for thinking they are watching a different sport.
You’ll see men in traditional whites playing with a red ball and going about everything at a remarkably sedate pace.
It’s unrecognizable to lovers of the modern, kaleidoscopic and pyrotechnic form of one-day cricket.
So much has changed – in the way the short form of the sport is played, and in the emergence of new, highly proficient players on the world stage.
The way we were – one-day cricket in the 1970s and 1980s
World Cups in the early days were played over 60 overs a side, 10 more than the current format. But scores of over 300 were as rare as a spinner’s century.
When West Indies made 286/9 in the Final in 1979, it looked an impossible score to chase. Especially when the England openers took 38 overs to compile a stand of 129 in reply before their team lost heavily.
Four years later, India batted first in the Final and made only 183 – but defended it successfully as they lifted the trophy for the first time.
One-day cricket, in those far-off times, was still closely related to the five-day Test form of the game. It had to throw off several layers of shackles to become the fast-paced, run-drenched spectacle of today.
So what changed?
Some of the changes to one-day cricket – colored kit, white balls and a huge variety of camera angles – give the sport a superficially different look. But there must be other reasons why the game has gone up several gears, surely?
While 300 used to be seen as an incredibly high score from 60 overs, it’s now seen as par for the course by teams who bat for 10 overs fewer.
The odds have been swung heavily in the batsman’s favor thanks to several factors:
1.) Restrictions mean a certain number of fielders must stay within a circle 30 meters from the wicket for the duration of an innings. It used to be a common sight to see every fielder on the boundary to stop the ball reaching the fence.
2.) Bowlers can no longer aim the ball down the leg side, where it is harder for a batsman to hit. Anything more than a whisker outside leg stump will be called a wide.
3.) Similarly, the ploy of using two or three bouncers every over – with the ball whistling unreachably over the batsman’s head – has been outlawed.
4.) Bats have become bigger and bigger, with an ever-widening sweet spot. Modern batsmen wield mighty willow weapons that can flick the ball almost into orbit.
5.) At the same time, boundaries tend to be shorter, making it easier to clear them with a big hit – and more tempting to try.
How T20 has raised the game
It’s not just the art of one-day batting that has changed beyond recognition in recent decades.
Players are generally much fitter than their predecessors, and standards of fielding have rocketed as saving runs became a key factor in the one-day game.
Bowlers have had to become much more skillful and accurate as they try to restrict the flow of runs.
New arts such as reverse swing and a well-concealed slower ball have been perfected by bowlers keen to redress the balance between bat and ball.
Most of all, however, the advent of Twenty20 (T20) cricket, matches of just 20 overs a side, has produced a generation of players adept in this most focused form of the game.
Every ball counts, whether for a batsman desperate to find a way past the field or for a fielding side equally focused on stopping him.
There’s an awful lot of T20 cricket being played. A match takes less than four hours – it’s an ideal evening’s entertainment – compared to a five-day Test match. The crowds love it; and as a result, cricket’s authorities do too.
The high-speed, high-scoring nature of T20 has had an inevitable impact on the 50-over game – and from a spectator’s vantage point it has been a positive one.
Strength in depth – another T20 spin-off
It will be a huge surprise if four of the traditional big guns of the sport do not make up the semi-final line-up at the 2019 Cricket World Cup.
That shouldn’t detract from the huge improvement there has been in parts of the world not usually associated with top-level cricket.
It no longer comes as a surprise when Bangladesh overturn one of the bigger nations. They beat South Africa by 21 runs with an impressive display in their opening match of this year’s tournament.
Afghanistan came into the World Cup as the outsider of the 10-strong field, but have covered themselves with credit so far.
Gigantic strides have clearly been made since the Afghans were on the end of a record 275-run defeat by Australia four years ago.
There are two main reasons why Afghanistan and their ilk no longer look out of place at the World Cup top table.
1.) Yes, it’s T20 again. Many of the players have appeared in the Indian IPL and their own T20 leagues. They have plenty of experience in the smarts of the one-day game.
2.) The qualification process for the World Cup is far more rigorous than it used to be. 10 teams fought for two spots in March 2018, with Afghanistan and West Indies prevailing.
The Afghans beat the Windies twice in that mini-tournament, including in the final, so their creditable displays so far in England this summer should come as no surprise.
These are no whipping boys.
And indeed, it would not be a shock to see them beat Bangladesh in their penultimate group match on June 24.