A World Cup without Pakistan?

Pakistan's 2015 World Cup matches were among the most viewed games on TV. Will the ICC consider losing that viewership in 2019? AFP

Lord's is a picture for the opening ceremony of the 2019 World Cup. It has put on quite a show, as if ostentatiously making up for those tepid, apologetic fireworks that launched the 1999 tournament. Yet there is a ghost at this feast: Pakistan, who did not qualify, and are absent from the World Cup for the first time. Their players are 4000 miles away, jealously watching on television.

This scenario remains unlikely, yet it is far from impossible. Only the top eight teams, as of the cut-off of September 30 next year, will qualify automatically for the World Cup. Pakistan are stuck in ninth on the ODI table, with 86 points, their lowest ever tally since the rankings system was introduced in 2001. They are eight points behind West Indies, which is a considerable gap to catch up in a year, especially with an onerous tour to Australia looming.

Should Pakistan fail to qualify automatically, they will instead be forced into a qualifier in April 2018 - a cut-throat format that leaves scant room for error. Ten teams will fight it out for the final two berths in the World Cup, among them Zimbabwe and a coterie of improving Associate nations, all of whom, unlike Pakistan, will have a schedule that allows them to concentrate on ODI cricket in the months preceding the qualifiers. So these are perilous times: not just for the Pakistan Cricket Board and all those who cherish the Pakistan cricket team but also those who stand to lose financially by the absence of Pakistan from the World Cup.

The overriding rationale for the ten-team World Cup, played in a round robin format, is that it guarantees heavyweight teams nine matches, and ensures that the most lucrative games - above all, India against Pakistan - take place. This desire dates back to March 17, 2007: the day India and Pakistan were defeated in the World Cup in the opening stage; the Super Eight game inked in as being India v Pakistan was Bangladesh v Ireland instead. "Had it not been for those results, the 16-team World Cup would have become the norm," an ICC insider later said. Effectively, emerging nations were punished for their very success, because it had come at the expense of India playing Pakistan.

The ICC resolved never to let that happen again. Indeed, matches between India and Pakistan in ICC events are so commercially valuable - they are routinely watched by a billion around the world - that the ICC has admitted to fixing the draw to ensure they take place. That is why the two will play each other in the group stages for the fifth consecutive tournament during the Champions Trophy next year.

"What might happen in the future is, a buyer of rights would set out in a contract what would happen if the country of their principal interest failed to qualify" Andrew Wildblood, TV rights expert

Now this streak is imperilled. So too is all the huge interest Pakistan generate: although they were eliminated in the quarter-final of the 2015 World Cup, Pakistan were involved in two of the four most viewed games in that tournament, and the total audience for their matches was second only to India's in the entire tournament.

In the short term, the ICC's revenues would be affected little by the absence of Pakistan: prudently, its commercial contracts for 2015-23, which are the overwhelming bulk of its revenue, do not guarantee the qualification of any particular team. Still, ticket sales and commercial deals specifically for the 2019 tournament (which are far less lucrative than the 2015-23 deals) would certainly be undermined by the absence of Pakistan, and by one million British Pakistanis being less engaged in the tournament.

The real commercial threat to the ICC if Pakistan fail to qualify lies not in 2019 but later. Existing sponsors and commercial partners would be angsty - as in the backlash that followed in 2007, when India and Pakistan performed disastrously. The World Cup would become worth less to broadcasters and commercial partners without Pakistan, and the deals those parties had struck with the ICC would come to seem overpriced. Contractually, they cannot renege on their agreements, but they would be unhappy and thus less inclined to pay as much for future ICC events.

"In the future you can be fairly sure that broadcasters will say that if any of the eight major nations of the ICC don't qualify, we pay this much less, and if the nation that I'm principally interested in doesn't qualify, then this happens," says Andrew Wildblood, the former executive president of IMG and an expert on cricket television rights. "What might happen in the future is, a buyer of rights would set out in a contract what would happen if the country of their principal interest failed to qualify."

Then there is the financial risk to Pakistan itself. Failure to qualify for the 2019 World Cup would mean Pakistan losing out on the ICC's fee for participation in the World Cup, which will be US$1 million per nation in 2019. More significantly perhaps, but harder to quantify, it would significantly reduce the attractiveness of Pakistan to commercial partners.

Alongside all this is the cricketing perspective: that a tournament devoid of Pakistan would be missing something essential and intrinsic to the sport, notwithstanding Pakistan's abysmal recent form in ODI cricket. Except for South Africa during apartheid, cricket has never known a heavyweight nation not taking part in an ICC event. Pakistan's absence would be felt far more than the absence of West Indies from next year's Champions Trophy.

So there are significant reasons why the PCB might yet attempt to lobby to undo the planned ten-team World Cup. Though they have been silent on the matter, Zimbabwe and West Indies too have much to fear from the ten-nation format. An inevitable result of contracting the World Cup at a time when the Associate nations, as a whole, are better than ever before is to imperil the progression to the Word Cup of established Test nations, who have previously always enjoyed automatic qualification as a membership right. And while broadcasters and commercial partners would not rue a tournament without Zimbabwe - and the absence of the West Indies, with its combined population of six million, would scarcely be felt financially either - a tournament lacking Pakistan, its 190 million people, and the prospect of an India v Pakistan World Cup match, is a different matter entirely.

In all the discussions about reforming the structure of international cricket, calls to undo the contraction of the World Cup have largely been silenced. But as well as the cricketing argument for a bigger World Cup, there is also compelling commercial logic for a bigger tournament. The last World Cup, featuring 14 teams, was easily the most commercially successful in history, and Associate nations played an important part in this. Four of Ireland's six games in the tournament were among the top 20 most followed games on digital platforms - not just their matches against Pakistan and India, but also their tight victories over Zimbabwe and the UAE; the last ranked as high as tenth, despite being an all-Associate match. Meanwhile rugby, a sport with a similar colonial footprint, is benefiting form the surge in viewing figures from outside its traditional strongholds, like in Japan.

Pakistan's possible absence from 2019 would undermine the short-term commercial attractiveness of a ten-team tournament. While the crude financial logic of the ten team round robin is taken as fact, the truth is altogether more complex. The format is likely to result in a large number of matches where at least one team has nothing at stake: a team could lose their first three group matches, and effectively be eliminated, yet still have six games to play. The 2019 competition will also suffer from only having three knockout games - even in India, as Russ Degnan has showed, such matches are watched by significantly higher numbers than group games are. And it would be even longer than the 2015 event.

It remains possible to change the 2019 format; indeed, a senior figure reckons that the format of the World Cup can be tinkered with until the end of 2017. The ICC certainly has previous in this regard - not only in undoing the ten-team format for the 2015 World Cup, but also (more saliently in the case of 2019) before the 2014 Women's World T20. In July 2013, eight months before the competition and just a week before the final qualifiers, the ICC announced that three teams, rather than one, would qualify for the World T20, which was being expanded from eight to ten teams. This decision appears to have been made partly because of fears that, under the mooted eight-team format, at least one of Pakistan or Sri Lanka would not qualify for the tournament.

Pakistan could yet lead a similar push this time. As their ODI team plummets, even while their Test team glories in being world No. 1, the cold financial logic, as well as the tenuous cricketing argument, for the ten-team World Cup faces being eroded. For a World Cup without Pakistan would just not be the same - either for fans or those who bankroll the sport.