What’s the best format for the World Cup?
The big ticket event in ODI cricket finally arrives in the subcontinent. Spread over 40-odd days, our expert decides to look at the format of the tournament in the years gone by as compared to the current one.
It is World Cup time again. The tenth edition of the big tournament is now underway.
Rather curiously, the format for the World Cup has still not ‘settled down’. It probably never will because every new edition comes with a new set of compulsions.
To start with, in 1975, things were rather simple. There were only 8 teams then, so they split them into two groups of 4 teams. After a round-robin in each group, there were two semi-finals and a final. Just 15 matches spread over 15 days … and it was all over with West Indies emerging deserving winners.
Those days, they played 60-over games and nobody quite knew how to play this new game (certainly India and Sunil Gavaskar didn’t!). Only one of the 15 matches was close; all others were hugely one-sided.
1979 was almost identical to 1975. Same format, same winner, same dismal Indian performance! This time, two out of the 15 matches were close.
In 1983, they finally got a little smarter. There were still two groups of 4 teams each, but now each team played the other twice in the round-robin phase. So there were now 24+3 = 27 matches. But they still finished the business in two weeks, with India emerging the surprise (but very popular) winner.
This Indian victory made ODI cricket tremendously popular. So the 1987 World Cup was held in India with one significant change: it would now be a 50-over innings (partly to accommodate fewer hours of daylight in India). The format in 1987 was the same as in 1983: but they took a month to finish the 27 matches, probably realizing for the first time that a longer tournament favoured commercial interests more.
Unexpected defeats for Pakistan and India in the semi-finals made it an Australia-England final, which Australia won. Old-timers may recall that Australia captain Allan Border received the ‘Reliance World Cup’ from Dhirubhai Ambani with his two sons smilingly watching on. This was perhaps an early sign that Indian money was going to rule world cricket.
The 1992 World Cup in Australia had an exciting new format: There would be no groups; every team would play every other team in a round-robin event to determine the semi-finalists! This format is attractive, but every additional team significantly increases the number of matches. In 1992 itself, the late entry of South Africa increased the number of matches from 31 to 39.
Pakistan came from nowhere to win the month-long ‘Benson & Hedges World Cup’ that was enjoyable because of the introduction of coloured clothing and day-night games but marred by the use of the ridiculous ‘most productive overs’ rain rule. There was more evidence too of commercial interests infiltrating cricket. Cricket Australia deliberately delayed the event, so that they could finish their domestic season completely first. That’s why his event happened in 1992, instead of 1991, and that’s also why there was so much rain in the first place!
By 1996, when the World Cup returned to the sub-continent, the number of teams had swelled to 12 with ICC seeking to widen cricket’s world footprint. This effectively ruled out a complete round-robin, because that would have added up to a total of 69 matches, with many being hopelessly one-sided. There were, therefore, two groups of 6 teams each playing each other in a round-robin, with the top four in each group qualifying for a knock-out from the quarter-final (QF) stage.
This was a dangerous format because just 7 matches effectively decided the winner! Sri Lanka eventually needed just three good wins to win the 33-day World Cup in 1996! A lousy pitch at Eden Gardens made their task even easier.
The 1999 World Cup, back in England, again had 12 teams in two groups. But this time, they introduced the innovative concept of a ‘Super Six’. The top three teams in the first group would play the top three of the second group in a second round-robin to determine the semi-finals. Teams would also ‘carry forward’ the points they had won against other Super Six entrants in their group stage. This move rewarded wins against strong teams in the group stage, and ensured that group matches were not irrelevant.
It was one of the best World Cup events with several of the 42 matches being close – none closer than the South Africa-Australia semi-final tie that required the net run rate to determine the winner. Pakistan, who had a great World Cup month, eventually succumbed to Aussie pressure in a one-sided final.
By 2003, the World Cup – in South Africa and Zimbabwe for the first time – was getting bigger and longer. The 2003 event had 14 teams, instead of 12, and 54 matches spread over 44 days. Once again they opted for the Super Six format, but this time the choice boomeranged. Boycotts because of political differences, poor comprehension of the D/L method, and some upsets conspired to put Kenya and Zimbabwe in the Super Six instead of South Africa, England or Pakistan.
India will remember this World Cup fondly because Ganguly’s team beat all opposition except the eventual winners Australia; India’s win over Pakistan at Centurion on March 1 would probably have the best all-time recall value!
But, for the first time, there were fears that the World Cup was becoming an unmanageable monster. A fortnight-long event with racy encounters between the top eight teams was becoming a long and arduous affair with too many poor matches and too much consumerism. Why there was now even the ghost of match-fixing, with some strange and unexpected results beginning to be noticed!
The 2007 World Cup in West Indies exacerbated these concerns. There were now 16 participating teams, with 51 matches spread over 46 days. The ICC came up with a format that had the potential of offering a large number of exciting matches: they created 4 groups of 4 teams each, and the top two from each group entered a ‘Super Eight’ round-robin against the remaining six teams from the other three groups.
Sadly, both India and Pakistan failed to qualify for the Super Eight! So we had the dreary spectacle of Bangladesh and Ireland figuring in the top eight and playing a large number of one-sided matches. This led to a disastrous event, both commercially and in terms of match interest. As the event dragged on, the only interest was who would challenge Australia in the final. Sri Lanka earned that distinction before losing the final in fading light.
Indeed, the prospects of ODI cricket, and therefore of the ODI World Cup, itself appeared to be fading after the stupendous success of T20 cricket. Only India’s success in the 2011 World Cup could keep the event afloat. Or, put another way, another Indian World Cup failure could effectively finish off the event for good.
That’s why a single consideration drives the format of the 2011 World Cup: India must stay in the event as long as possible.
With 14 teams this year, the 2003 format of picking 3 teams each from two Groups of 7 teams for a Super Six was the most attractive alternative. But there was one fear: What if India fails to qualify for the Super Six?
So they’ve gone back to the dreadful 1996 format of a knock-out from the quarter-final stage. To qualify, India must only be in the top four out of a group of 7! After defeating Bangladesh in the opening game, India has already almost ensured a QF berth. The earliest that India can now effectively exit from the 43-day tournament is on Day 33.
That’s good news for advertisers, but bad news for cricket lovers. With this format, we’ll see far fewer good matches! And one bad QF game could knock out a popular team like India or South Africa.
A good World Cup schedule must ensure the largest number of well-contested games, reward consistent performance and throw up a truly worthy winner.
So what would be the best format for a World Cup? My vote is for a complete round-robin featuring the top 8, 9 or 10 teams (involving 28, 36 or 45 matches), two semi-finals and a best-of-three final. This would involve a maximum of 50 matches, and many of them would be deliciously close.
An equally attractive alternative is a round-robin in which 8 teams play each other twice, with the top two making the final. This too would involve only 57 matches and give us a riveting World Cup experience. But with ICC’s current dispensation towards minnows, that won’t happen.