The World Cup of 1996, nineteen years after it was done and dusted, carries with it a certain nostalgia. The underdog victory, the oddly awful uniforms, and even the bumbling opening ceremony now appear rather quaint.
The main legacy of the tournament was the explosive batting at the top of the order, most notably the Sri Lankan duo of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. They were key elements to Sri Lanka’s triumph, ignoring the traditional circumspection that had characterized the start of innings since time immemorial. Instead the pair threw their bats at almost everything. Sometimes it did not come off—both were out cheaply in the final and semi-final—but when it worked they tilted the match to the Sri Lankans, most famously in the remarkable run-chase against England in the quarter-final when they reached their target of 235 in the 41st over.
The Sri Lankans made this strategy famous in 1996 but they were not its only or first adopters. In that World Cup, Australia opened with Mark Waugh, India with Sachin Tendulkar, and New Zealand with Nathan Astle. There was even similar experimentation four years earlier in the 1992 World Cup, when fielding restrictions for the initial fifteen overs were first introduced. Ian Botham went up the order for England, and Brian Lara did the same for the West Indies.
Following the success of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana, hitting out at the start soon became the default approach for fifty-over matches. The likes of Adam Gilchrist and Tendulkar became specialist one-day openers, while more broadly the tradition of bulwark opening bats in the line of Geoffrey Boycott and Sunil Gavaskar became, if not sidelined, then overshadowed by the big-hitting exploits of Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle, and Dave Warner.
Those last two are still around but there has been a movement back to older ways. This is chiefly in response to tweaks in fielding restrictions that force the fielding side to post a maximum of four players outside the thirty-yard circle for the last ten overs. It provides an obvious incentive to attack at the end of an innings, and many teams have responded by stacking their middle order with big hitters. Glenn Maxwell, David Miller, Corey Anderson, Shahid Afridi, and Andre Russell all have the ability to score heavily in just a few overs or deliveries.
It’s early days but the results so far bear this out. Discounting New Zealand vs. Scotland—where Scotland were bowled out in the 37th over—the team batting first in the initial eight fixtures have all scored more in the final fifteen of their innings than the first fifteen overs.
This is not, though, just a reversal to the old, conservative ways, when six runs an over was considered adventurous. The innovations of Twenty20, added to the impact of two new balls, and the fielding restrictions during the final ten overs mean that batsmen can go hell for leather towards the end of the innings. Australia hit 83 from their first fifteen against England and 163 on the back fifteen; South Africa teetered to 55 at the start and hammered 196 at the end; and the West Indies managed just 50 at the beginning but recovered with 181 in the final fifteen, although that was not enough to prevent defeat.
As ever, England is contrarian. Back in 1996 they dabbled with a big hitter up top for three games; Neil Smith, who had batted at nine and ten in his previous international appearances, suddenly found himself opening. It was not a success, with Smith contributing a painful 24-ball innings of 11 in a comprehensive defeat against South Africa, although he is perhaps better remembered for vomiting twice on the pitch in an earlier match of the tournament.
Now, just as the world moves towards a new idea, they are insisting on the big gun up top. As Mooen Ali told the excellent George Dobell, “As an opening bat, when you’re chasing a big score, you have to get off to good start.” Well, perhaps but if you are nine down in the 38th over, as England were in their opening fixture, the speed at the start is not very relevant. And when you are all out in the 34th over, as they were against New Zealand, everything else is pointless.
The word revolution comes from the Latin term, revolutio, which means "a turn around.” Jayasuriya, Kaluwitharana, and their fellow pioneers revolutionized one-day batting. Their successors have turned their tactics upside down to achieve even higher scores. Alas, all this turning around has only given England a headache.