Monday, 12 March 2007

In praise of the World Cup format

Clearly, it has become increasingly fashionable to criticise the ICC. There are, of course, plenty of reasons to be unhappy with cricket’s governing body. But the widespread discontent with the structuring of this World Cup is surely unjustified.

The chief cause for complaint for many, including Martin Crowe at the 2006 Colin Cowdrey Lecture, seems to be that the tournament will drag on too long; it lasts more than six weeks. And the fact that there are 16 nations competing, which means that half of them are there just to take part, has been met with outcry. The ICC, it seems, is shamelessly damaging the game’s dignity in their desperation to make cricket a global game, which is an impossibility.

Yet, although there will be 16 countries taking part, an increase of two from the last World Cup, the number of games between the elite – that is, all the Test nations apart from Zimbabwe and Bangladesh – and the smaller cricketing countries has dropped from 24 to 16.

The ICC has a duty to make the World Cup a stage for more than the mere superpowers of the game. The football World Cup, for example, has been expanded to 32 teams recently. Although the diluted quality that used to be the hallmark of the tournament right from the off has diminished rather, the vast majority of football fans are happy with the change. The chance to see otherwise nondescript players and teams taking on the world’s best is intriguing; with the worst sides playing a mere three games, there is little chance for fans to become bored watching relative minnows playing.

And therein lies the problem with the 2003 cricket World Cup. In 2003, sides such as Holland, Namibia and Bangladesh played six games, which was patently far too many. If sides play three games they are more likely to produce competent performances; if they are forced to play six, the novelty wears off and their enthusiasm and confidence will inevitably suffer as they are thrashed routinely, which makes for a terrible spectacle for fans.

There seems no doubt that the 1992 World Cup featured something close to the ideal format. Eight Test-playing sides and one minnow each played each other in a round robin competition, and the top four teams then progressed into semi-finals. Indeed, Crowe said that “Of all the World Cups I played in or watched over 27 years, the best structure by far was the 1992 World Cup.”

The truth is that it is simply not plausible that the ICC will ever even consider such a ‘closed door’ structure. Instead, they have retained the key principle that made the ’92 format such a success – everyone playing everyone – and updated it to include the minnows it understandably aims to spread the game too. Simultaneously, they have accepted the logic of a reserve day, thus going a considerable length to ensure cricketing justice is done.

The general quality of cricket in the four groups of four will probably not be the best; certainly, even die-hard cricket fans may not have the stomach for Bermuda’s games. But it is imperative the minnows are allowed some chance against the best and it would be churlish to argue with the likes of Kenya getting three prestigious games every four years.

At the last World Cup, it was relatively hard for sides to progress to the Super Six round. But any sense of tension created by close games between sides vying for progression was ruined amidst all the minnow bashing and run rate preoccupation.

In the West Indies, however, the standard of cricket from the start of the Super Eight stage should be tremendous. In short, the ICC has taken the consummate World Cup format and dragged it into the 21st century. For this it deserves enormous credit.

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