Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Getting the Cricket World Cup Format Right

In October 1998, a first-of-its-kind ICC cricket tournament was held in Bangladesh. After a solitary pre-quarterfinal to eliminate a (ninth) team, the world’s top eight teams were engaged in a knockout tussle over a week, with South Africa finally emerging triumphant. The tournament, which was also known as the ‘Mini World Cup’, was loved as much for its exciting knockout format as it was for presenting all of the Test-playing nations together.

Now, come the 18th of March, 2015, as the business-end of the Cricket World Cup begins, we will have eight teams again gearing up for the knockouts. I am yet to meet, hear or read anyone who supposes even for a moment that the eight teams will be anything other than Australia, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, England, New Zealand, Pakistan and West Indies. This is not to say that Zimbabwe, Ireland, Bangladesh or Afghanistan cannot win any matches but only to make the point that they are not likely to clock up the number of victories (including at least one over a top eight team) that the format requires them to, in order to qualify for the knockouts.

This adds a lot of weight to the argument that the first 42 matches will merely serve to decide how the eight teams listed above will line up against each other in the quarter-finals, making the ICC’s premier ODI tournament look like a bloated ICC Knockout Trophy with the initial round seemingly in place only to decide the fixtures of the latter part. This, admittedly, is not what a tournament of the stature of a World Cup needs, particularly at a time when One Day cricket is struggling for relevance among the mass-favourite T20s.

The length and format of a tournament is largely influenced by the number of teams playing in it. And that statement takes us headlong into the raging debate about the number of Associate and Affiliate teams that ought to be playing in a World Cup. There is no denying the fact that it is vital that the Associate and Affiliate teams play the Full Members often, but is the World Cup the appropriate stage? I fear not. Despite the fact that the last few World Cups have had at least one instance of a top-eight team being beaten by an Associate nation, and acknowledging the fact that these upsets do add an irreplaceable charm to the tournament, I would still recommend a 10-team World Cup, in the interest of having a format that adequately tests the top teams.

In the 10-team structure that I propose, the two bottom-ranked Full Members (currently Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) will compete with the top-four associates for the last two spots in a Qualifier event, thus ensuring that deserving Associate teams do get a place, and not at the cost of affecting the quality of the tournament. Between World Cups, to develop the Associate nations, the ICC and the top-ranking boards must facilitate bilateral tours for the associates with the Full-member teams or their A-teams on a periodic basis.

If there can be a thing as an ideal 10-team World Cup format, it has to be this—the ten teams play each other, with the top two teams directly playing a best-of-three final, producing a winner on whom the ‘deserved’ tag would sit well. The 1992 World Cup, with nine teams in it, came close to this and has generally been regarded as a Cup that got its format right. However, given the number of matches a 10-team round-robin format would entail, and the necessary allure of having knockout matches, the next best bet would be to play teams in two groups of five, followed by a Super Six through to the semi-finals and final. This would give the teams a reasonably long run and a fair test.

The 2015 Cricket World Cup format follows its 2011 predecessor. The format assures the top teams’ protection against elimination by a single defeat to a sub-eight team (as India and Pakistan so painfully experienced in the 2007 edition) and more or less guarantees them a quarter-final berth, barring a sustained barren run. From then on, as Rahul Dravid so succinctly summed it up, three good days are enough for a team to lift the World Cup. The question as to whether that’s how the cricketing world wants its premier ODI tournament to be lingers though and leaves not that pleasant an after taste.

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