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For the love of 1992

Wasim Akram collides with Chris Harris Getty Images

The ICC has announced that the next two World Cups will feature ten teams playing each other in a round-robin format. It is the circle coming full, in a way, since it brings with it a return to the much-celebrated format of the 1992 edition. Indeed, the 1992 World Cup remains perhaps the most popular one ever held, as evidenced by the fervour of fans in memes, pictures and replica shirts.

Much like the similarly iconic 1970 World Cup in football, the '92 cricket World Cup owes its popularity to the advent of colour. In 1970, it was the television transmissions that came in colour instead of black and white. All of cricket's World Cups had been broadcast in colour, but this was the first one to use coloured uniforms. It was also the first of only three cricket World Cups where every team had the same basic design for uniforms, affording a pleasing aesthetic unity to proceedings. It seems odd, but modern kit-makers have rarely gone with the superb palette chosen in earlier editions; 1992 was easily the best here - Australia's yellows have never been more mango-like since then, Pakistan's green never more subtle and electric, and it had the best England shirt in existence.

But as noted, it is the tournament's format that is more seriously celebrated. Indeed, the ICC has spent every World Cup since 1992 tinkering and tampering with the format. Many aficionados have spent the years since calling for a return to the 1992 system, simply because it is meant to be more egalitarian. The presence of minnows had long been blamed for the presence of boring, one-sided encounters, while the example of 1992 was used to justify the ICC's recent claim that a Cup with only ten teams would mean no boring games.

The opening week or so of the 2015 World Cup has put paid to that theory, since almost every one-sided match has featured two top-eight teams. Moreover, it is also a reminder that format is not the surest way of ensuring competitiveness. With perhaps the exception of 2011, none of the four other World Cups that followed 1992 was as open as that one.

When the tournament held in Australia and New Zealand came around, the mighty West Indies were in slow descent, while Australia, despite being defending champions, were not quite near their era of dominance. Indeed, Border's men were the only holders who didn't make it to the knockouts. England, and to a lesser extent Pakistan, both played sides that would make it to the final and end up influencing how both those teams approached ODIs for the next decade. More importantly, the two African outsiders (South Africa and Zimbabwe) punched well above their weight, and New Zealand had their greatest tournament ever. Even Sri Lanka went in with the core of what would become their greatest ever side.

In other words, there was a happy coincidence: none of the three title winners till then were playing too well, while almost all the other teams were not only evenly matched, they also featured many players who would go on to become legends. There is no doubt that having a format that got all the teams to play one another maximised the enjoyment, but that's about it.

The next four tournaments became increasingly stratified, and the two editions in the 2000s were infamous for being boring and one-sided. However, while almost everyone blamed the format, it was the simple fact that Australia's dominance killed off a lot of the intrigue: 2003 and 2007 saw some of the biggest upsets in cricket history, but the canter at which an undefeated Australia won both times caused the tournaments to feel worse than they were in retrospect.

If the teams play out 2019 the way they seem to have been doing in the last few years, it is easy to see three or four teams lording it over the rest. There is a limit to how much entertainment can be ensured from a World Cup encounter - after all, ensuring the highest ratings is the basis for all decisions in any sport. Yet football has already shown that matches between the top nations are often drab affairs, while the 2015 cricket World Cup is already showing that these are often drubbings. Indeed, the pressure generated by the hype often goes a long way in ensuring that these encounters are cagier and of a lower quality than they would have been otherwise.

It might be asking for a miracle, but at some point administrators will have to concede that the least effective way of ensuring exciting matches is by tinkering with tournament formats. An equitable sharing of resources and a fairer chance to all teams can help, but ultimately the magic is inherent to the sport, not its organisation.