Keeping the world in the World Cup
Writing about the fate of the Associate members in the next World Cup, Sharda Ugra ended her piece with what can be read as a lament. "One thing, though, is clear. Cricket's World Cup is never going to be the same again." Taken literally, though, she was merely stating what's been true since 1979: the first two World Cups were identical but since then no two tournaments have been the same.
No other global tournament, much less a World Cup, can lay claim to such persistent tinkering. But it might be simplistic to lay all the blame at the doors of the administrators. True, they can be accused of knee-jerk responses and a certain lack of steadfastness and clarity, but, to a large degree, the ever-changing nature of the World Cup is a reflection of the churning the game has undergone in the last thirty years and the peculiar - and in many ways perilous - construct of the cricket economy.
In principle, the format of the last World Cup was perfect. It accommodated 16 teams, which meant slots for Kenya, Bermuda, Canada, Holland, Ireland, and Scotland, but there were four groups of four and the preliminary rounds comprised only 24 matches and spanned 12 days. So it was effectively a tournament of two halves; the Super Eights was meant to be the serious part, to be followed by semi-finals and the final. It could be said that the administrators had learnt from the mistakes of the 1999 and 2003 when, despite having fewer teams, it took an eternity to eliminate the lesser teams.
But what was a good idea in theory went horribly wrong in practice with Bangladesh and Ireland knocking out India and Pakistan in the first round, and condemning the Super Eights to a series of mismatches - and, far more significantly, knocking the bottom out of the financial model which was based on the assumption of India playing a minimum of nine matches. And so, the current abomination was born, designed solely to keep the game's breadwinner in the competition for as long as possible. But this also meant the first round, featuring mismatch after mismatch, would go on over a month.
And so the ICC, as if wise to its folly in advance, announced the change for the next World Cup even before the current one began. And even though the format hasn't been announced yet, it is more than likely that 2015 will be quite like 1992, although with one more team. In 1992, nine teams - the then Test teams plus Zimbabwe - played each other once and the top four teams qualified for the semi-finals. Many regard it as the most evenly and keenly contested World Cup: Zimbabwe, who were granted Test status later that year, were no pushovers and the format allowed teams to recover from early reversals, as Pakistan, the champions, did. There were 39 matches, and it all ended in just over a month.
Inevitably, the ICC's decision has split opinion. As Graeme Swann, whose candour is as refreshing as his drifting and floating off spin, said poignantly before the tournament, the ICC's decision has taken the world out of the World Cup. Mahela Jayawardene, whose country steadily graduated to the top league after playing two World Cups as a non-Test playing nation, has added weight to the argument that denying the Associates their biggest stage will rob them of a major incentive to carry on playing and will be a huge setback to the spreading of the game. Allowing them to participate in the World Twenty20 isn't adequate compensation because the shortest form of the game is not the ideal means to develop true cricket skills.
Further, with the IPL and Champions League cornering a healthy chunk of the cricket calendar and most cricket boards making revenue their prime rationale for playing the game, even the tokenism of indulging the Associates with the odd ODI series has almost vanished. Ireland played only 11 ODIs against active Test nations after making it to Super Eights in the 2007 World Cup, while Kenya, who were at one point an intermittent participant in the limited-overs scene, have managed a mere two.
The other viewpoint, equally persuasive, is that the game's premier tournament should not be burdened, and consequently weakened, by the task of globalising the game. The presence of a huge number of weak teams leads to unequal and predictable match-ups, robbing the tournament of friction, intensity, competitiveness and spectator interest. Cricket doesn't yet have the depth of football, and against the argument that even the football World Cup features weak teams is the fact that the length of the 50-over game amplifies the inequality of the contest.
Thank heavens for Ireland, who have injected uncertainty and life into Group B by their unbelievably magnificent upset of England; other Associates, barring the Netherlands in one innings, have however been uniformly miserable with the bat so far, and with Zimbabwe and even Bangladesh joining them it's mainly been, up to now, a weekend tournament. The most compelling aspect of this is a need for change.
However, the change need not be so drastic as to shut out those who can't match the might, either on the playing field or at the cash counter, of the elite nations. If there is willingness to consider it, a middle-ground exists to accommodate the Associates without diluting the World Cup or hurting the commercial interests of the broadcasters. This can be achieved simply making the first round of the World Cup effectively a qualifying tournament for the Top Ten.
Here's how it will work. The ICC is yet to decide how many teams will automatically qualify; this should be set at six. Which would mean four of the bottom-ranked teams among the ten Full Members - using this World Cup as an illustration it would mean New Zealand, West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe - would join the top four among the Associates in a qualifier, the first round of the World Cup. They could probably be split into two groups, with the top two from each group going into the second round - the Top Ten.
This will add to the tournament's length but these first-round matches can be played in a cluster of two or three a day and be finished within a week. It is now routine to play a few practice games before the tournament, and the top six teams can play their practice games concurrently.
This will give all the Associates the same number of matches they played in the 2007 World Cup; teams like Ireland will have a genuine chance to go to the next round; the contest in the second round will be far more even; the broadcasters will have a few more matches to televise; and for the viewers, even the first-round matches will carry meaning and context.
The World Cup can retain its eminence without losing the world.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo