March 5, 2011

Keeping the world in the World Cup

The ICC can retain the prestige of its biggest tournament, and of its weakest members, by a simple elimination round

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.

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.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Daison on March 9, 2011, 7:30 GMT

    That is an absolutely brilliant idea. In a way that will then make some meaning to the otherwise meaningless bilateral series too. As all those results will play as a "world cup" qualifier for the test playing nations while only the top 6 in the rankings automatically qualifies to the second round. The the bottom 4 has to play with the minnows to qulify to the second round. Good thought - Sounds much like the relegation zone in English Premier League!

  • Frazer on March 8, 2011, 17:37 GMT

    my idea is to have the group stage identical to 2007. Then top team in each group would play bottom from another group and 2nd plays third from another group. (last16) then 1/4's semis and final. This would have 24 gruop games (2 a day) 12 days then 15 KO games, last 16 2 a day, from there 1 a day. with rest day or 2 between stages world cup lasts a month. This means that group games have incentive of an easier last 16 game, but poor starters can still recover and associate nations still have a chance due to KO games.

  • Dummy4 on March 8, 2011, 15:56 GMT

    So, apart from all of this brouhaha, what is wrong with an associate nation springing an upset, as Zimbabwe did in 1983, or Ireland in 2011, or, oops, we can't have this, Kenya reaching the semi finals, or a big overweight bloke taking THE CLASSIC CATCH of the last world cup? Let them compete if we want it to be a world game, exposure to best practices ensures improvement. Australian football (soccer) moved to the Asian conference to ensure just this in the world game. Cricket will die without more world exposure, regardless of the sub continental influence.

  • Richard on March 8, 2011, 15:14 GMT

    @Vinod-Surely all you can safely say from the empty stands for the games that do not include a home team is that the home crowd isn't prepared to fork out money to see a non home team game. That's not quite the case in Australia. You certainly won't get as big a crowd but the game will still be well attended. India may have fallen head over heels for T20 but it does not follow that the rest of the world has. Down here 50 over games are still hugely popular and T20 is still derisively known as hit and giggle. We love our test matches and accept the 50 over format as a legitimate filler, but no serious cricket buff would choose T20 over any of the aforementioned formats. T20 is seen as something to pull the kids in and the people who are just waiting for the football season to start. I've always thought of T20 as cricket for those who don't like cricket, and I can't see 25 or 30 over games taking over here.

  • Dummy4 on March 8, 2011, 13:21 GMT

    Changing the ODI format is key to retaining both popular teams for longer as well as playing the minnows not become uninteresting. "the 50 over game amplifies the inequalities" is quite right and I am for a best of three sets of 15 over innings instead. Lets an upset in one inning drag the game to 3 sets, gives more ad breaks, helps assess a minnow better, blends the innings with the shorter game, allows for creativities like a super sub, power play patches, more stats to flaunt, more even sharing of the pitch conditions... the list is endless. Thinking it as a resemblance to baseball shouldn't deter us from keeping the money, attention and fairness in a game that is indeed growing despite our fears.

  • Dummy4 on March 8, 2011, 8:55 GMT

    I actually like the idea of dividing the world cup into 2 parts......8 teams playing a qualifying round, after being divided into 2 groups...but I would want only the top 2 teams making to the 2nd round. 12 games in round 1. All play all in round 2. 28 games in round 2. Semi finals and finals. Total of 43 games and most will be rather interesting.

  • Vinod on March 8, 2011, 3:01 GMT

    Looking at the empty stands for most of the matches in this World Cup except the matches of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, I can safely say that ODI cricket is nearing its end. People have other things to do rather than spending 8 hours watching a game. Either make the next world cup into 25 or 30 overs match or just make the T20 as the World Cup format. The key is to make sure that the match shouldn't go beyond 4 hours.

  • Dummy4 on March 8, 2011, 2:55 GMT

    I agree but with one objection. The qualifying rounds shouldn't happen just before the WC but rather atleast a year before the WC so that the qualifying teams can get enough time to prepare. Otherwise this will make the WC boring as the first round (qualifying round) will still have weak teams and hence poor audience attention.

  • awais on March 8, 2011, 0:25 GMT

    world cup format is not going to do any good to associate nations anyway.playing once in four years against top teams isnt good enough.if u want associates to get better u gotta give them more games n more frequently so they can rectify their mistakes and adapt changes twice a year rather then once in four years.instead of playing bi-lateral ODI series, make them tri-angular or quad-rangular tournament, with 3rd n 4th teams being associates.if ICC monitors n distributes such tournaments evenly i believe each associate country will get 6 to 8 games each year n few close contests can pull more cricketers in. watching ur team get humiliated by bigger teams only disappoints u and as a youngster u only feel that u can never get to that level , atleast not in ur life time.give them a sniff of victory atleast couple of times every year. n i think tri-angular series is more exciting than bi-lateral even for bigger teams supporters

  • Dummy4 on March 7, 2011, 22:56 GMT

    A surprisingly bad article from Sambit Bal. You have good intentions, but the arguments should be better thought of. The associates currently qualify to the world cup and you want an additional qualification round for entry to the main world cup rounds. A couple of issues - the associated want to play the world cup not just because they want a world audience but also because they want to test themselves against the best in the world. If they are anyway playing against the worst of the test playing countries, what is the point. Secondly, why would this second set of qualifying games be anymore interesting to watch or have a better following than the first? So, the associates do not gain any additional viewership. What is, oops god forbid, India or Pakistan do not qualify automatically? Would the ICC automatically change the rules again to ensure that they do not by some chance get knocked out early again?

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