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In search of the perfect World Cup format

The nine captains with the trophy PA Photos

Alan Fordham's duties as compiler-in-chief of English county cricket's endlessly tortuous fixture list may leave him reaching for the Valium on a daily basis, but he won't envy those entrusted with organising the game's principal event, the World Cup, one bit - even though it doesn't involve 18 teams (yet).

No matter how they tinker, meddle or innovate, the flak comes flying from every corner. Hence, from 1983 to 2011, eight format changes.

How many other sports boast a junior global event (the Champions Trophy) more appetising and engrossing than the showpiece? What other major sport, moreover, can say that participation levels at its premier tournament have shrunk over the past decade - and say it with some relief, and perhaps even a smidgen of pride (however guilt-ridden)? Such are the contradictions of the brittle, jagged jewel in cricket's crown.

But let's not get too derisive: the boys in Dubai deserve sympathy. Inclusiveness comes at a heavy price in a sport where speed, stamina and muscle count for so little, and patience, concentration and skill for so much, leaving the gap in quality so fiendishly hard to bridge. Yes, Ireland and Kenya have mounted memorable insurrections, and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe executed impressive muggings prior to Full Member-hood, but this is hardly giant-killer land. Come 2019, less should indeed mean more.

England 1975 and 1979: Small is beautiful (ish)
Teams: 8
Games: 15 in 15 days
Overs: 60
The first two World Cups were barely worthy of the name, comprising just six Test nations plus Sri Lanka (invited in 1975 and qualifying as winners of the inaugural ICC Trophy in 1979), East Africa (1975) and Canada (1979). Throw in the tiny time frame - in 1975 the whole enchilada was squeezed into a fortnight before a resumption of Ashes hostilities just five months after the previous outbreak - and the format was a no-brainer: two groups of four each, then the semi-finals.

Brevity made for a more intensive, immersive experience for spectators and viewers; it also meant that one bad morning might have done for the favoured sides. As it was, the nearest approximation to a surprise came when Australia, far less experienced in the limited-overs fray, defeated England to reach the first final. On the other hand, the home-fried groupings meant that in 1975 only two of Australia, West Indies and Pakistan could progress to the knockouts. That the most gripping matches of the first two tournaments were West Indies' 17-run win in the inaugural final, their spellbinding one-wicket victory over Pakistan at Edgbaston in 1975 and the same sides' semi-final encounter four years later testified to the waste.

That Sunil Gavaskar could spend 60 overs compiling a staggeringly selfish and pointless 36 not out in the opening fixture in 1975, let alone without the slightest fear of harming India's prospects, makes it all the more remarkable that run rates did not become a tie-breaker until 1983.

England 1983: Double the fun
Teams: 8
Games: 27 in 17 days
The first refurbishment: six qualifying games apiece. Given the revolutionary impact of India's triumph, how sobering to observe that, under the previous format, had it not been for their captain's astonishing unbeaten 175 against Zimbabwe, rescuing his side from 17 for 5, Kapil Dev's men would not have survived their group.

The games-to-days ratio showed what could be done when the spirit is willing and the flesh isn't vulnerable to the blandishments of broadcasters. What a pity so many matches were left unscreened, thanks to a BBC strike.

India and Pakistan 1987: Shrinking and spreading
Teams: 8
Games: 27 in 32 days
No change to format but fresh fields, tens of thousands more miles to schlep, 15 more days required to play the same number of games as 1983, and a hefty new broom.

Shorter daylight hours necessitated a pruning from 60 overs to 50 (not to mention dewy 9am starts, though the teams batting first won more than twice as many as they lost), but then that was the norm outside Blighty anyway. Balls bouncing or careering over shoulders were formally outlawed as wides. Neutral umpires and over-rate fines were introduced.

Travel, inevitably, engendered the thickest migraines: in one four-match sequence, Sri Lanka went from northern Pakistan to central India, back to Pakistan, then back to India, each hike a sapping two-dayer. Unsurprisingly perhaps, they lost all six contests.

The most blatant gaffe was the decision to dispense with a reserve day during the group stage unless the entirety of the original date had been washed out. Fortuitously, only the Australia-New Zealand clash was rain-affected, and that was trimmed to 30 overs per side, so the nonsense remained strictly theoretical nonsense.

Australasia 1992: Immaculate conception
Teams: 9
Games: 39 in 33 days
Mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the fairest World Cup of all? Why, this one, of course. For the first and only time, it was all-play-all. Not even the pottiest method yet devised to decide interrupted games stopped it being remembered by most sage judges as the most riveting tournament of the ten thus far. Facilitated by the advent of coloured togs and white balls, enlivened by fielding circles and the limit on two outfielders for the first 15 overs; and the entrance of day-night fixtures didn't hurt either.

If South Africa's return to the ICC fold swelled the numbers to nine, accentuated the congestion and prolonged matters, few griped. Here, after all, was a tantalising taste of what a world cricket league could be. New Zealand surged ahead, emboldened by Martin Crowe's intrepid and innovative tactics, exemplified most rousingly by Mark Greatbatch's bucolic deeds at the top of the order (given that it is a baseball phrase that refers to a substitute player, to celebrate him as a "pinch-hitter" would do the burly left-hand opener a gross injustice). England, too, did much as they pleased, but while Australia, South Africa and West Indies grappled for the other two semi-final spots, there were sufficient opportunities for Pakistan to turn the tide after winning just one of their first five games, ensuring both Australia and West Indies missed out.

Ridicule bubbled over when Pakistan met England in Adelaide. With Ian Botham and Derek Pringle to the fore, Graham Gooch's buoyant mob whipped out the opposition for 74 and took an exceedingly early lunch at 17 for 1; from then on, rain held all the aces.

When the conditions were finally playable, as a consequence of the "best overs" calculation - co-authored, among others, by Richie Benaud - the target had metamorphosed from the original 75 off 50 overs to 47 off 10. In the end, only two more overs were bowled, sparing the organisers from even heavier ridicule. Since Australia wound up with a fractionally higher net run rate - which parameter was making its debut as a tie-breaker - the point Pakistan gained from that "no result" made the difference between progress and an early homebound flight.

It bears adding that, had the calculation followed the one then in force in county cricket, the revised target would have been an equally unjust 24 in 16 overs: hence the alternative proposed by Richie and Co. Still, the eminence grise had enjoyed finer hours. Duckworth and Lewis, how we needed you.

India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka 1996: Overture to overkill Teams: 12
Games: 37 in 33 days
Globalisation started here. With Zimbabwe now a Test nation and hence competing by right, three qualifiers emerged from the ICC Trophy. The downside was a return to first-round groups and the 30 matches it still took to produce the quarter-finalists.

The first tournament to generate whopping profits, and 1m in TV rights - the deal was actually worth 20 times that - was also the first to shoehorn in quarter-finals, an extension that found the qualifiers from one group all proceeding to the last four. With all due respect to Sri Lanka's heroics, the overall lack of quality and sparkle could be seen in the fact that only one of those quarter-finals was remotely competitive.

Britain 1999: Super (ish) Sixes
Teams: 12
Games: 42 in 38 days
It seemed an exceedingly bright idea at the time: minimise dead rubbers and lax effort by adding a second league phase, for which points gained in the first would be carried forward. Nobody, sadly, had thought the thing through.

Having skittled West Indies for 110, Australia's priority was twofold: win, naturally, but also, having lost to New Zealand, boost their opponents' net run rate in the hope that they might pip New Zealand. Steve Waugh's men duly dallied for more than 40 overs before finishing the job; the last 14.4 of which, even more shamelessly, saw them scrap out a pitiful 24 runs. I was there a few days later for the India-Pakistan encounter, and also when the same nations met there during the 2004 Champions Trophy, but never have I heard so many boos at Old Trafford. "We're not here to win friends," reasoned Steve Waugh with characteristic scorn for niceties, "just the World Cup."

Africa 2003: Romcom of errors
Teams: 14
Games: 54 in 43 days
Another expansion led to a six-week sprawl and the scrapping of reserve days: risky, given that the tournament was played late in the Southern African summer. Sure enough, two games were washed out.

The lessons of 1999 went unheeded: the not-so-super half-dozens remained, with points calculations tweaked, and political boycotts allowed Kenya, of all nations, to reach the semi-finals. On the other hand, romance did bloom as never before.

West Indies 2007: Profits without honour
Teams: 16
Games: 51 in 47 days
Record surplus, new low. Sixteen contestants, four groups of four and the new Super Eights combined to stretch this unenthralling, interminable tourney deep into a seventh week. "Abysmal," reckoned Sambit Bal. He was being kind. The first World T20 would soon remove some of that bitter aftertaste, but not enough.

Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka 2011: Leaner not fitter
Teams: 14
Games: 49 in 43 days
An improvement, sure, but still far too much more of the same. The line-up was cut to two groups of seven, the schedule trimmed, centuries and run rates shattered records, but although the quarter-finals returned, drama was an irregular visitor, and outside India, dissatisfaction persisted. Indecision too. Two days after the final, having contemplated a reduction to 12 teams, the ICC confirmed that the next instalment would feature just ten teams, infuriating the Irish in particular, whereupon the outcry prompted a U-turn.

Australasia 2015: End of an era?
Teams: 14
Games: 49 in 44 days
And now for something completely, utterly, the same. Next time, or so we've been assured, the field will be scaled back to ten as planned. As a compromise, four groups of four followed by quarter-finals (31 games) might be worth a shot, but better a return to all-play-all, which would only work with a slimmer field. Regrettably, Haroon Lorgat's hints about that in 2011 came to naught.

Thank goodness, then, for that succinct, field-levelling World T20 smorgasbord, which will surely expand beyond 16 before long. For the 50-over banquet, where the divide separating cans from can'ts is more than twice as wide, a strict diet is the only way forward - for now.