A few days before the World Cup began, ICC Chief Executive Dave Richardson asserted that the move to a ten-team World Cup would ensure that there were more competitive games of cricket between evenly-matched teams. Ignore for a moment the evidence of the 2015 World Cup, in which all of the matches that resembled even contests have involved associate nations. Afghanistan against Scotland and Ireland v UAE will go down as World Cup classics, while India’s mauling of South Africa was instantly forgettable. I can’t even remember who got runs in that one.
Ignore all that. Dave Richardson’s mistake was saying that the most desirable quality in a cricket tournament is evenly-matched teams. It isn’t. What matters most is context. And that is what will be lost in the move to a ten-team World Cup.
The proposed format is a one-group, round robin stage, followed by two semis and a final. There are four places in the knock-outs up for contention, so if you lose a few games early on you can find your way back in. The value of each game will be diminished, because all you might stand to gain or lose from an individual match is a couple of points. In the current format, lose a game unexpectedly and you could find yourself facing the exit door. England and Pakistan both find themselves in this position at the moment.
Of course, this is partly the ICC’s aim. By guaranteeing each team nine group matches, they guarantee that India can’t be knocked out until they have milked the TV rights dry by promising nine games featuring India for the subcontinental market. They don’t care whether an upset means anything in the overall scheme of the tournament; in fact, that works directly against their interests.
In 2007, Pakistan and India were both knocked out early after humiliating games against Ireland and Bangladesh respectively. This cost the TV companies advertising revenues, and these losses were passed on to the ICC. But if we take these considerations out of it, and as a purely intellectual exercise try to work out how to create a World Cup that is inclusive and exciting, what sort of a format do we come up with?
There are two principles I have applied in coming up with the format I propose. The first is inclusiveness: cricket is a wonderful sport, but it cannot survive in the long term unless it grows beyond its current limited range. All other sports are desperate to grow their showpiece tournament, because they want to inspire the next generation of footballers and rugby players. Cricket needs to do the same. The rise of the Afghan national side has made cricket the most popular sport in Afghanistan; if the cricket administration shuts the door on the Afghan side, those children will start playing football instead, and football will be happy to have them.
The second is context. As many games as possible in the World Cup should mean something to a country’s chances of progressing to the next stage. I am not being entirely blind to some of the financial realities of cricket, I just haven’t let them rule the way I think, as I hope to demonstrate.
My World Cup format consists of 18 teams, arranged in three groups of six, five group games each. The top two sides in each group automatically qualify for the quarter-final stage, while the best third-placed team would also get an automatic pass. The last quarter-final spot would be decided by a play-off match between the two other third-placed teams. There would be a clear incentive to finish in the top two, but finishing third in the group would not be the end of the world. The remaining knock-outs, the quarters, semis and final, would remain as they are.
In total, the group stages would consist of 45 matches, the same number as the proposed 10-team format. The advantages of the 18-team system, as well as being more inclusive, are that each game would have a greater impact on a team’s chances of progressing: a slow start for a top nation could see them struggling to make the next round, while if an associate burst out of the blocks quickly, they could be in contention for a spot in the knock-outs. Lose a couple of matches in a group of ten teams, and you still have plenty of time to claw your way back into the top four. Net run rate could decide whether or not you have to contest a play-off for your quarter-final spot, so there is also an incentive to play attractive, aggressive cricket.
Another proposal that would add context to the early stages has to do with World Cup qualification. I propose that the eight quarter-finalists should receive automatic qualification for the next World Cup. This would mean that top nations would have to work harder to justify the privileges they receive as full members, and the smaller countries, even if they had only a slim chance of carrying home the trophy, could come away with the consolation prize of a guaranteed place in the next tournament if they played well.
This format would not be shorter than the current or proposed formats, but it would have compensatory benefits. Adding four more teams to the tournament at the cost of only a handful of extra matches is worth it, because it encourages investment in cricket beyond its existing strongholds. Companies would find investing in cricket in Nepal, Papua New Guinea, the Netherlands and the USA far more attractive propositions if there was a realistic chance of them appearing at the World Cup. Also, talented young sportspeople will be more likely to persevere with cricket if they might one day compete for the sport’s biggest prize. This can only be good for cricket, and that can only be good for the ICC in the long term. The gap between the best associates and weakest full members is almost non-existent now, and with greater exposure, the gaps between other associates and cricket’s elite could shrink similarly quickly.
For all of these gains, India would only lose four guaranteed group matches from the ten-team format, and if they played as well as they ought to, they would have at least six. It could be written into the World Cup’s rules that India and Pakistan have to be drawn in the same group if they both qualify. Cricket has a choice between an aggressively expansionist, 18-team tournament, or a hostile, exclusive 10-team tournament. It should be obvious which is best for the long-term health of the game.
There are, of course, wider problems in the world of cricket that feed into the World Cup format issue. Associates have achieved extraordinary feats on limited budgets and with limited opportunities to play better teams, but for the playing field to be completely fair they need more fixtures, against one another and against full members, and more money. The ICC has the power and the financial ability to achieve this, but making the World Cup format more inclusive is a cheap and easy step to signal their intention, at least, to expand cricket.
The ICC has the power to decide whether young boys and girls in Afghanistan are playing with cricket bats or playing with guns. Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran should be heroes for the ICC to celebrate, not painful thorns in their side. Cricket can change the world for the better, but there is a real danger that cricket is being changed for the worse. An 18-team format would bring context to cricket, and it would bring cricket, perhaps for the first time in an authentic way, to the world. And that is what the World Cup should be about.