Fielding will be a challenge for the sub-continental teams

At this World Cup, the two new balls — like in the 1992 edition — could have a major impact. Batting sides will have to get used to the bounce, especially in Brisbane and Perth. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

Whatever opinion Kevin Pietersen may hold of Yuvraj Singh’s bowling, it can be safely said that India would not have won the World Cup in 2011 without it. His shuffle to the crease, off three paces, did not exhilarate anybody, but Yuvraj’s 15 wickets at 25.13 proved critical in India’s march to victory.

Four years on, M.S. Dhoni is left pondering over the composition of his bowling group, not because Yuvraj has not been selected but because, in his opinion, the new rules have killed off that role. On October 30, 2012, the ICC’s new rules for One-Day cricket came into force. Two new balls and only four fielders outside the 30-yard circle in the Powerplay overs: both meant to enliven the middle overs and draw more crowds.

India, like all teams, fretted over the rules. Ahead of the Champions Trophy in June 2013, India’s first tournament outside the subcontinent under the new stipulations, Dhoni’s biggest worry was adapting to them. “We will have to adjust to the new rule of five fielders being inside, the length they need to bowl, how quickly they adapt to the wicket, which areas to bowl,” he said.

Pitches in England and Wales, though, were kept dry, clearly with an eye on the imminent Ashes series. India’s bowlers thrived and in the final, England stuttered on a surface more hospitable to the opponent.

It was when Australia came visiting later that year, though, that the first serious rumblings of discontent were heard. In an ODI series that challenged perceptions and previously-used yardsticks, both teams racked up scores that were mind-boggling. Totals crossed 300 nine times in 11 innings, with India chasing down 350 twice.

“I think it is something that we need to sit and think about if 350 is the new 280 or 290 or 300,” Dhoni felt during that tournament. “With the rule changes and everything, most of the bowlers are getting smashed with the extra fielder inside. Even the best of the bowlers, the fast bowlers, are bowling with third man and fine leg up.”

He sympathised with bowlers on both sides. “It was more of a fight as to which side bowls less badly. With the extra fielder inside, if you are slightly off target, it goes for a boundary. A few of the bowlers are disappointed, they actually feel it will be better off to put a bowling machine there. I don’t know where it is going. Is it good in the long run that we are seeing, for seven hours, only fours and sixes?”

There’s been a modification to the field restrictions since, with the Powerplay overs reduced to 15 (first 10 overs mandatory; 5 overs of batting powerplay thereafter). At this World Cup, the two new balls — like in the 1992 edition — could have a major impact. Batting sides will have to get used to the bounce, especially in Brisbane and Perth.

India was undone by Steven Finn’s steep climbers at the ’Gabba in the Carlton Mid ODI series and will have to improve in that regard. The ball will swing conventionally for a longer time, while reverse swing goes out of the picture. But a harder ball will also help batsmen strike it better. In, say, the 34th over, when the ball was previously changed because it got muddy, each ball will technically be only 17 overs old. Spinners will largely be used defensively by their captains. For seamers there lie opportunities to take early wickets, but the risks if they fail are equally high.

The biggest challenge for sub-continental teams, however, will be to their fielding. On Australia’s giant grounds — the ICC chief executive Dave Richardson has spoken of boundaries being pushed back to 90 yards where possible — the presence of only four men outside the ring demands speed and discipline in the outfield. Fast bowlers cannot be hidden at third man and fine leg any longer and catches need to stick.

If the Carlton Mid ODI series is to be any template, then totals, in Australia, should not be enormous. In New Zealand, with its short boundaries in certain venues, scores could be reined in by making pitches friendlier to seam bowlers. Early signs are not encouraging, though, with New Zealand crossing 300 thrice already (and 350 twice) in eight completed ODIs this calendar year.

To a certain extent, the idea that part-time bowlers and spinners have suffered is a myth. Since the rule changes were implemented in October 2012, Ravindra Jadeja has been India’s highest wicket-taker, with 77 victims at 28.57, with an economy rate of 4.64. R. Ashwin has taken 64 wickets and gone at over five an over — more than his career average — but it is certainly not the disaster it has been portrayed to be.

“Overall, we are seeing that the total runs scored in an innings have more or less remained constant,” Richardson said in December 2013.

“The average runs in a One-Day innings is about 250 and the data shows that the only change is that a higher percentage of those 250 is scored in boundaries, as opposed to ones and twos. This is one of the reasons why we introduced the fielding restrictions in the first place, to try and make the game more attacking and more exciting. There are more wickets falling and more boundaries being scored and the totals on an average are remaining the same.”