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cricket:image:1438986 [900x626] (Credit: Getty Images)

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Gifts are sweeter when they arrive in unexpected ways. There were so many imponderables about this T20 World Cup that it was hard to anticipate which way it would go. A new host country, new venues, unused drop-in pitches, a new format, and so many new teams: it was always going to be the biggest World Cup, but what if it turned out to be the dullest?

Some of the worst fears did come true. There were a few one-sided games. The England-Oman match lasted 99 balls, with England knocking the target over in 3.1 overs. Lockie Ferguson thundered to a world record by grabbing three wickets in four overs without conceding a run against Papua New Guinea. New Zealand also smashed Uganda with 88 balls remaining, and West Indies beat Uganda by 134 runs.

The pitches in New York - assembled in Adelaide, incubated in Florida, and finally bedded into the ground at the freshly minted venue in Nassau county - were not quite Adelaide, where batters usually go to dine. The playing surfaces went from being an ally and abettor for batters, as in so much of T20, to a challenging adversary.

Strokeplay, long thought of as an entitlement in the format, became an occupational hazard on wickets that were two-paced and afforded uneven bounce and some seam movement and swing when the ball was new and there was moisture in the air or in the surface. Hitting though the line became fatal, and setting up one's stall and muscling the ball away became impossible. Runs had to be earned, boundaries became rarer, and sixes became events.

Consequently, phase one of this World Cup turned out to be the slowest-scoring in history, going at barely over a run a ball, and yielding the fewest boundaries per match (26.39) in the history of the tournament. It was a staggering fall from the batting mayhem that had preceded it in India and built exaggerated expectations.

The average boundary count at this year's IPL was 48.36 per game, with one being hit every 4.76 balls. The six count: 1260, at over 17 a match. What drudgery, then, for that to be nearly halved (8.7 per match) and for six machines to be reduced to plodders. Heinrich Klassen, who blitzed 38 sixes at the IPL, including eight in one game, has managed only seven so far from five matches at this World Cup.

Think again.

The truth is that the pitches, however far from ideal, became, in the circumstances, a providential blessing - who would lay out this kind by design? - for this World Cup. Because by swinging the game towards the bowlers these surfaces shrank the gaps between the mighty and the challengers.

By virtue of being a compressed format, T20 does even things out slightly between unequal sides, but batting parity on flatter surfaces is tough to achieve for teams lacking in experience and depth. History will bear out that bowling and fielding have been the instruments of major upsets in global T20 tournaments. Rarely do unfancied teams overhaul scores beyond 200; it's the low-scoring thrillers they manage to edge by scrapping their guts out.

USA, who have filled this tournament with joy and tales of unlikely heroes, started the tournament winning a high-scoring chase against fellow debutants Canada, but it was their slow-burning Super-Over thriller against Pakistan that brought this tournament alive and made their story so stirring. It was a similar surface that kept them in the game against India, and who knows where that match might have gone had Suryakumar Yadav's mishit not been spilled in the outfield at a time when things were in the balance.

Eventually USA became the only non-elite team to make it to the Super Eight, but the whole of the first phase hummed and throbbed with possibility. PNG wobbled West Indies in their first game, South Africa scraped past Netherlands chasing 104, Scotland were in with an even chance in their rained-out encounter against England, and they were decidedly ahead in the game against Australia for the best part of their defence.

More incredibly, Nepal were a blow away from beating South Africa and about an over's worth of runs away from beating Bangladesh. Had the margins gone their way, they could have qualified ahead of Bangladesh. Oman lost out to Namibia in another low-scoring thriller that ended in a Super Over, and they had Australia on a leash until they dropped Marcus Stoinis, who celebrated the reprieve by clobbering four sixes in the following over.

Sixes are a spectacle, no doubt, and evenly contested high-scoring games are thrilling. But a surfeit of sixes can dull the senses, and nothing can fall as flat as a rapidly faltering chase of a high score. In contrast to the IPL this year, which produced 41 scores of 200-plus, the first phase of this World Cup had only three such, and thank heaven for that, for all three turned out be, as they often do, no-contests.

What many of these simmering, slow-burning close games have underscored is that the true thrill of sport lies in the contest and its attendant tension. Yes, fast runs are the currency of T20, but the struggle to score runs can also be thoroughly absorbing when the outcome is on the line. And when bowlers are in the ascendant, chases of small totals are usually well poised: the score remains within reach, but wickets are imminent. For the viewer it's only a matter of reorientation: from the pace of scoring to the graft for runs.

Varying surfaces and the challenges they provide are among cricket's unique selling points. For batters to have their skill and temperament examined occasionally is a refreshing departure from the routine, and a welcome reminder that the core appeal of the game lies in its most fundamental contest: bat vs ball, not bat vs bat - as flat beds, small boundaries and dewy conditions sometimes reduce white-ball cricket to.

It is true that the advantage to bowlers in this tournament has been extreme on occasion, particularly in New York, but just as bowlers are regularly required to adapt to conditions stacked against them, batters have had to dig deep and fight their way through. It has been compelling to watch. When you hear Stephen Fleming say that he found some morbid joy in watching batters struggle, you can identify.

Familiar service seems to have resumed at the business end of the tournament as the top teams battle it out on pitches more amenable to the free flow of the bat, but as we settle down to savour the sight of the ball soaring into the skies again, let's give quiet thanks for having lived a different experience: T20s can be enjoyable without the ball-bashing too.