Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal
World Cup 2023 (2)
WBBL 2023 (2)
HKG-WMN T20 (1)
Marsh Cup (1)
If you have experienced cricket from the stands, you can instantly grasp why batting commands the mass imagination.
It is a spectacle. Both visual and aural. The sound of a meaty strike, rich, crisp and velvety all at once, cuts though the wildest cacophony. Your eyes trace the path as the ball leaves the bat, racing across the turf or flying through the air. Sometimes the outcome is instantly obvious, and sometimes it's a tease as fielders give chase, but the whole thing is a treat, a vivid, immersive experience. And you just see a lot more of it than you do of its bowling equivalent, a dismissal or an unplayable delivery.
Take batting's apogee: the century. You watch it take shape and grow, you keep track of the runs ticking away on the scoreboard, you are part of the anticipation and the countdown, your awareness is heightened, and your gaze turns sharper when a batter enters the 90s. When the magic number is finally achieved, it's a rousing communal experience.
Wickets, we all know, win matches, but runs are the popular currency of the game.
Partly it is because bowling is a more inscrutable art. The decisive events in bowling are over in a millisecond, and the intricacies of bowling are tougher to follow on a cricket field than those of batting. The fall of a wicket is a massive event, but it comes abruptly. Only the most seasoned watchers, with a well honed sense of the game, can correlate it to what came before: the set-up, the gradual drawing-in of the batter to their doom, and the variations and subtleties of the craft.
There is rarely any deception about strokeplay, but bowling is often about the con. And when the best batters are so often rendered clueless by those, what chance of comprehension do the rest of us have?
So what do we do? We turn up for the batting. Unless, of course, we can't take our eyes off the bowling.
Gratitude, then, to India's bowlers for awakening our senses to cricket's original art, for making this World Cup so riotously, joyously and memorably about bowling. How ridiculously good they have been, what joy they have brought, and what a privilege it has been to watch them.
Not that India's batters have been slackers. Rohit Sharma has been a scorcher at the top, peppering the boundaries with violent grace. Virat Kohli has been acing chases and marshalling the middle. KL Rahul and Shreyas Iyer have turned up either to play stabilising hands or to amp things up, but the truth is, India's batting has rarely had to stretch or sweat: they have not been asked to chase over 300, and perhaps have not felt the compulsion to push towards 400 while batting first.
The numbers are ridiculous. In a World Cup that has produced the fastest powerplay scoring in the history of the tournament (5.42 per over) Jasprit Bumrah has gone for 2.73 in that phase, which makes him about 30% more stingy than the next best among those who have bowled at least 60 balls in powerplays; 80% of his deliveries have produced dots, which translates to batters having been unable to score off four out of every five deliveries.
Equally incredible are Mohammed Shami's wicket-gobbling feats. With 16, he now stands fourth on the wicket-takers' list and he got there after missing half of India's games in the tournament. His strike rate, 9.75, is comfortably the best in this World Cup.
Even Mohammed Siraj, who has been relatively inconsistent among India's frontline fast bowlers, compares favourably to the best of the rest. His ten wickets at 31.7 mirror the returns of Josh Hazlewood, Australia's best fast bowler in the tournament. Only Shami, Marco Jansen and Dilshan Madushanka have taken more powerplay wickets than Siraj at a better average.
Not only do India's spinners have the best combined economy rate in the tournament, they have also taken the most wickets at the best average. That's a remarkable stranglehold in the middle overs, where battles were meant to be won in this World Cup.
Kuldeep Yadav, who by virtue of the kind of bowling he does, is liable to concede more boundaries than others, has given away one every 19 balls in the middle overs, the best in the category, and Ravindra Jadeja at 17.9 balls a boundary is only marginally behind. Between them they have conceded only 12 sixes off 779 balls. Keshav Maharaj, South Africa's lead spinner, alone has conceded 12 off 414 balls, as has New Zealand's Mitchell Santner, off 436 balls.
The sum of it is that opposition batters have come up against a bowling machine so spectacularly relentless, they have found no relief, no release, no escape, and consequently no hope.
Pakistan managed to get early boundaries against Siraj, but his comeback was two vital top-order wickets. New Zealand launched a calculated assault against Kuldeep, hitting him for four sixes in his first five overs, which went for 48. Off his last five, Kuldeep grabbed two momentum-halting wickets and conceded 25 as New Zealand, looking good for 350 at one stage, were limited to an under-par 273.
As India's bowlers continued to set up comfortable chases for their batters in the first half of the tournament, the question remained about what their response would be to dewy conditions and to the pressures of defending a low target if the batting failed. That was answered emphatically at the first time of asking, when they defended 229 against England on a soaking wet outfield in Lucknow with such menace and verve that it set the tone for the next two chases.
Batting meltdowns in the face of tall targets are often the outcome of a compulsion to go hard from the beginning. But lest someone point to the deleterious hangover of T20-style adventurism, let it be said that it has been quite the opposite. Indian bowlers have subjected top-order batters to searing examinations of their batting technique. Sri Lanka were in the dust even before they began their chase. And South Africa didn't dare play a shot. India had three bigger individual scores than Sri Lanka's total. South Africa, the scariest hitting assembly in this tournament, fell nearly 20 runs short of Kohli's individual score, and about ten short of the runs India scored in the powerplay.
In the first half of the tournament India looked in possession of the most versatile, disciplined and potent bowling attack, one capable both of containing and taking wickets at all stages of the game. Ironically, it was a selection change forced by an injury that turned them into a relentless machine. Forced to forego the insurance of a batting allrounder for a specialist bowler in the XI to make up for Hardik Pandya's absence, India, with Shami's inclusion, acquired a menace that has given rise to a scary inevitability: a fight for survival for opposition batters, ending in quick annihilation.
Swing, seam, zip, fizz, turn, stumps flying, batters nailed to the crease, balls flying to the cordon, the Indian bowling has been a sight in the World Cup, and they have left us with a storehouse of memories - which is what bowling has over batting: memories of batters dismissed by great balls tend to be etched deeper than those of great shots.
There was Jadeja spooking Steven Smith with the left-arm spinner's magic ball in India's first game, and repeating the dose to Temba Bavuma in the game last weekend. Bumrah's twin strike against Pakistan: an offcutter that left Mohammad Rizwan in disbelief, and an away reverse-swinger that left Shadab Khan defenceless. Also Bumrah's first-ball corker to Pathum Nissanka, angling in from wide of the crease, squaring the batter up and then snaking away to hit his pad. Siraj doing the opposite to Dimuth Karunaratne, the ball swinging in rather than shaping away with the angle. Shami with no such deception but merely unplayable to Angelo Mathews - full, swinging in and bending further in. Kuldeep to Jos Buttler, swerving wide outside off and breaking back viciously to the take the stumps. And then of course, Shami's sequence of balls that led to the disintegration of Ben Stokes.
Magic on magic, match after match, the Indian bowlers have been so far ahead of the pack that if you're so inclined, it would make you want to believe the most ridiculous conspiracy theory doing the rounds: that the ICC and BCCI have been sneaking them a different batch of balls than those for the opposition.
The truth, however, is that we have got bowling perfection achieved in unison from them.
Bowling is box office in a nation that worships batting and in a format that is designed to cast bowlers in support roles. What's not to celebrate?
Stats inputs from Shiva Jayaraman