The ongoing football World Cup in Brazil has caught the attention of the world, and the excitement among fanatics of the game will only increase as the semi-final round beckons. The tournament has been a big success and people from countries with barely any football culture are also hooked on to the games.
With as many as 32 nations and a slick format, the FIFA World Cup is easily the most watched team sport event in the world. I am not really into football, but the country vs country duels and the possibilities of major upsets makes it a really attractive and truly international tournament. In the current edition we saw how underrated Costa Rica topped a group consisting of three former World Cup holders and how Ghana and Iran respectively made mighty Germany and Argentina sweat in their group matches. Each team gets three games to prove itself in the first round and any lapse could be costly – just ask the Spaniards, who were the 2010 champions. After that every game is a do-or-die, as the knockouts give no team a second chance.
Where does the cricket World Cup stand vis-a-vis the football World Cup? For starters, the format has been tinkered way too many times. In the FIFA World Cup, the format has been constant since 1998, after the number of teams were expanded. There were 16 teams from 1934-1978 and 24 teams from 1982-1994. The periodic increase in the number of teams shows the popularity of the sport. Cricket’s premier ODI tournament meanwhile has had three different formats in the last three editions alone. The number of teams, matches and the group structure have all varied in recent times, with the ICC failing to zero down upon a suitable format.
1975 and 1979 had 8 teams and a single round-robin format. 1983 and 1987 had 8 teams and a double round-robin format. 1992 – due to South Africa’s late inclusion – saw each of the nine teams play every other once to decide the semifinalists. 1996 had 12 teams and quarter-finals. 1999 and 2003 had 12 and 14 teams respectively, with both having a Super Six round. 2007 saw 16 teams divided into four groups before a long-drawn Super Eight round to decide the final four. 2011 saw a reversion to the quarter-final concept, this time with 14 teams. 2015 will have the same format as that of 2011. But the most ridiculous idea is the one proposed for 2019 – just ten teams in a round-robin format to decide the top four. With this level of callousness from the ICC, can the cricket World Cup ever aspire to be even remotely close to its football counterpart?
With the new governance structure in the ICC now implemented, the powers-that-be have time and again used the word ‘meritocracy’ in their press statements. If they really want to introduce meritocracy, the first step should be to rectify the hollowness of the 2019 World Cup format. Otherwise, new chairman N. Srinivasan and his colleagues would prove themselves to be money-minded hypocrites. How can one remove the world out of the World Cup? The 2019 edition will apparently see the top eight ranked sides at a certain point to be given automatic qualification, leaving at least a dozen deserving Associates to scrap for the two final spots. In fact, this format was to be adopted for the 2015 edition itself, but better sense prevailed after an uproar among the Associates. How will up and coming teams like Nepal and Papua New Guinea be able to develop themselves if the very chance of qualifying for the world stage is cruelly minimised?
What would be the best World Cup format then? I am not a fan of the one used currently (2011 and 2015). The fourteen teams each play as many as six games in the group stage and the top four from each of the two groups enter the quarter-finals where suddenly it is make-or-break. Thus, consistency in the group stage is not rewarded. A team impressively topping their group can have one bad day in the knock-outs. We saw that in the 2011 edition, when South Africa – who seemed favourites after the group stage ended – lost their quarterfinal to New Zealand. Further, with the bane of corruption in the game getting worrisome by the day, this format is likely to encourage bookies. Why so? Because any team can afford to drop a game in the league stage if it is sure of qualifying for the knockouts. Beat three lower ranked nations in your group – like the West Indies did in 2011 – and you are through.
If at all quarterfinals are to be used, a format similar to the rugby World Cup should be adopted. In the rugby World Cup, twenty nations are divided into four groups of five each and the top two from each group enter the quarterfinals. While suddenly expanding to 20 teams may not be ideal for cricket, it can have a modified version by having fifteen teams in three groups of five each with the top two of each group plus the best two of the three third-placed teams making the quarterfinals. If you add in a third-place playoff, you get a total of 38 matches, compared to the 49 currently.
I liked the Super Six idea, but if the number of teams are to be increased then it is not suitable. The Super Six worked best in 1999, when there were 12 teams, coming up to 42 matches in all. In 2003, there were 14 teams and 54 matches, which seemed quite lengthy to many. A 1992-style league format (like the one proposed for 2019) is out of question when more teams are involved.
In my opinion, the 2007 World Cup format could have been the best, had it been organised more systematically. That particular tournament, played in the West Indies had an admirable 4×4 group structure, i.e four teams in each of four groups and each team playing three matches, a la the FIFA World Cup, but halved. However the plot was lost in the second round. Known as the Super Eight, this round involved each of the eight teams qualified facing every other qualifier not part of its group in the first round.
Thus we had each team playing six matches each in the second round, and though the total number of games in the tournament (51) were three less than 2003, it gave the World Cup such a bloated look that the tournament was considered a big failure. There are people who say that the tournament ‘lost its sheen’ due to the ousters of India and Pakistan in the first round at the hands of Bangladesh and Ireland respectively, but this is an insult to the latter two who defied the odds. The culprit was the extra-long second round.
The perfect structure in 2007 would have been to keep a condensed Super Eight stage. For any sports tournament to be a success, the second round should never have more matches per team than the first round. Thus, the eight teams could have been divided into two groups of four each in the second round. This would have given each team three matches in each of the first two rounds, i.e six games to prove their worth before the semi-finals. Had this been implemented, and taking into account the seedings at that time, the two pools in the Super Eight would have read as follows : Pool 1 – Australia, Bangladesh, New Zealand, West Indies; Pool 2 – South Africa, Sri Lanka, England, Ireland. Such a format would have at least held the interest of fans, the absence of India and Pakistan notwithstanding.
Of course, besides the long second round, 2007 saw issues like over-priced tickets and ban on musical instruments inside the grounds, but the major factor remains the dullness of the Super Eight round. Australia’s total domination added to its one-sided nature, but you can’t blame anybody for being a champion team. 2007 had the ingredients for cricket to show the world that it is slowly expanding as a sport. But unfortunately, in a bid to keep top teams – specifically India – for a prolonged time in the tournament, the format was tweaked completely in 2011. For sure, the number of games for Associates increased, but in 2007, there was a brighter chance of a full member slipping up in the group stage and that is exactly what happened when Ireland tripped up Pakistan.
Thus after considering the pros and cons of the various formats tried in the last four decades, my dream format for the cricket World Cup would be a group stage of sixteen teams (divided into four groups of four each), a Super Eight round with eight teams (divided into two groups of four each) followed by semi-finals, a third-place playoff and the final. A total of 40 matches, with a team playing a maximum of eight matches if it makes the final. Each match in each of the first rounds will assume importance if this structure is implemented, and cricket fans all over the world will undoubtedly be glued to the tournament.
If we consider the sixteen ODI nations of today in such a format, we could have the sample groups as follows – Group A – Australia, West Indies, Zimbabwe, UAE; Group B – South Africa, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Scotland; Group C – India, England, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea; Group D – Pakistan, New Zealand, Ireland, Hong Kong. Followed by a 4×2 Super Eight. Looks exciting, doesn’t it? This is how a proper cricket World Cup should look like.
The mindless decision of literally closing the door on Associates to take part in the World Cup from 2019 is a condemnable one, and the revamped ICC have to expand it if they are to really keep their oft-repeated word of meritocracy.