Fix the World Cup, save ODIs

Every four years, the ICC gives cricket fans the opportunity to come together and have the four-yearly debate the future of the one-day game, and whether minnows should be included in major tournaments. With the cricket world seemingly in a state of constant change, these debates are amongst the few constants.

I’m sure the World Cup serves a few other purposes too, and it is pleasing that (from my perspective following from afar) it seems to be have been a successful and popular tournament to this point.

But there are improvements to make, the structure of the tournament leaving plenty to be desired. It has crept along at tortoise-speed, and for every great moment of minnow inspiration, there have been more dud games in which a hapless victim is sacrificed to a flat-track bully seeking a spot in record books.

In a nutshell, the problem with the World Cup is the same problem with ODI cricket generally: there are too many meaningless games.

Indeed, the problem with the 50-over format is not so much the “mid-innings lull” you sometimes hear people complain about (a 5-day test matches is full of lulls); it’s that more often than not, there is nothing on the line. Do you remember Australia’s great 4-2 series win in India in 2009-10? Or our 22-2 drawn series in the West Indies in 2012? No, me neither (truly, I had go searching history pages on cricinfo to come up with a couple of examples…).

One often-heard suggestion is to kick out the minnows out of the World Cup, but this hardly helps the cause of growing the game. I was in Canada in 2003 when their side achieved a boil over win against Bangladesh in Durban, and the national mood was excitable: people we’re talking about it on the bus, it was the front-page story on Toronto’s Globe & Mail. But I’m now living a little to the south in a country that’s not participating, and absolutely no-one cares at all about the tournament, save for the occasional Indian immigrant (although “#ENGvsBAN” was trending on Twitter in the early hours of Monday morning).

It also doesn’t help that the tournament’s threshold for the 2nd round is 8 teams, a threshold that (apart from when the Englands of this world self-implode spectacularly) really just picks itself – it’s too much of a ‘natural cut-off point’ in the cricket world for there to be any meaningful competition to make the cut. So it just means that for most countries, we go through a month of matches for no purpose other than determining quarter-final seedings.

So here’s an alternate idea: have a tournament that includes minnows, and has a tight qualifying structure so that no-one just waltzes into the next round. And make all the matches in the intervening years mean something, by way of qualification.

I have a couple of different variations of how this could work, my first thought being as follows:

  • 13 teams
  • The top four seeds get a bye straight into the second round (this suddenly gives some value to all those miscellaneous matches in the intervening years)
  • The other nine teams start in three groups of three, playing round-robin over a week (eg. each group plays Sat/Tues/Fri or Sun/Wed/Sat, with a reserve day for each match in case of a wash-out), with the winner of each group going through
  • The second round pitches the four seeds together with the three winners of first round groups; these seven teams play round-robin, with a game every day, such that everyone plays twice per week and the whole of the second round is completed in three weeks
  • Either semis, or just a second vs third preliminary final (with the minor premier going straight through), then the final

As a variation, you could apply the same concept, still with 13 teams, but with five seeds going straight through whilst having two groups of four in the first round. This could still be done in the same timeframe, with those unseeded teams playing an extra game instead of having a bye.

This has the advantage that everyone would get at least 3 games before being sent home (as opposed to a meagre 2 in my first scenario). And having five seeds would perhaps enable the option to ensure a host (or co-host) country is seeded, if commercial and promotional factors demand this for the success of the tournament. This could be especially relevant when a dud is playing host, such as in 2019.

On this alternate basis, the 2015 tournament could have been played as follows, using current ICC rankings:

Seeds (straight into second round):

1 Australia

2 India

3 South Africa

4 Sri Lanka

5 New Zealand

 

First round Group A (1 winner goes through):

England

Bangladesh

Zimbabwe

UAE

 

First round Group B (1 winner goes through):

Pakistan

West Indies

Ireland

Afghanistan

 

The tournament would then feature a lot more even match-ups – and the better teams would take the previous 3-4 years’ worth of matches seriously in an effort to lock up a seeded spot. And we would still get to have Bangladesh turf England out at an early stage.

There are other variations you could do on this theme. You could have four seeds and three groups of four, if you wanted to have 16 teams. You could have five seeds plus three groups of three to steer 14 teams into a second-round of eight. I think I’ve got the right general framework, but am not especially passionate about what might be the best particular derivation of this.

The 2007 World Cup used an interesting model, in which 12 teams started in three groups of four, and after their round robin series, the top two from each group went into a second round robin, known as the “Super Six” round. This structure had promise, but fell apart commercially when India dropped their first round games to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and went home early. A billion people turned away from their tv sets and looked for something else to do, and sponsors presumably lost a truckload from having the biggest market only involved for three matches.

You could argue that my proposals run the same risk (or worse, if you went for one of the options with groups of three in the first round) – but in all likelihood, India would always be in the top four or five seeds. And if they’re not good enough over the previous four years to get a seeding, then they would deserve to be a knife-edge like everyone else.

Lastly, the glacial pace of the World Cup is dictated by an apparent television requirement to have one game every day (sometimes two on weekends). When you’ve got 14 teams going around, that is inevitable going to take forever.

But with the approach I described above, you’d get on with a lot quicker, not least because your main round would consist of seven teams, so one daily game means everyone plays twice per week. The total duration through each of the round would be:

  • First round (small groups of unseeded teams): 1 week
  • Second round, of seven teams: three weeks
  • Finals: one week

Not only would England get home sooner, but so would everyone else too.

So, there’s a few alternate ideas for a more efficient World Cup, with more competitive matches, whilst still keeping the dream alive for the minnows. Really not that hard.

 

Comments

  1. Luke Reynolds says

    Brilliant Brad, really like it. But cricket revolves around India. The 10 team round robin tournament proposed for 2019 guarantees India 9 games. I’d rather have it with your format. Especially like how your method can adapt from 13 to 16 teams. Much too logical for the ICC and BCCI.

  2. Dave Brown says

    Thanks Brad, would certainly be more compelling. Like Luke, looking at India as the major reason for the tournament, they’d be worried if India was essentially sitting out until the second round. While the first round is going on could you have he seeded teams playing off for positioning in the second round?

  3. Brad Carr says

    Luke & Dave, thanks for your comments. Yes, it’s bizarre that there is apparently major commercial value to be derived from having everyone overdose on an excessive array of meaningless matches.
    I would have thought there comes a point where the sporting public either gets restless and demands a contest, or quietly loses interest (the latter seemingly the case in Australia for most ODIs). But I guess enough people still vote with their feet (or their fingers on their tv remote) and tune in to make the meaningless matches viable.

  4. David Zampatti says

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if World Cups only featured meaningful contests between meaningful nations!

    Imagine a soccer World Cup when we didn’t have to put up with Australia.

  5. Wayne Ball says

    Sri Lanka won the 1996 World Cup, but they benefitted from the fact they were awarded 2 pool games because Australia and West Indies forfeited due to safety concerns with the civil war at it’s peak.. They therefore topped the pool and played the 4th ranked team from the other pool, England. Then they pulled off the upset of the tournament by thrashing India at Eden Gardens in the Semi Final.

    The Super Six concept was first introduced in the 1999 World Cup in England, and I thought worked well.

    2003 in Africa was also beset by forfeited matches in Zimbabwe and Kenya. Both these teams advanced into the Super 6, and the match between these two became a de-facto quarter final as one of them was all but guaranteed a semi final place. Kenya are the only non test playing nation to make a semi final.

    This was the death of the super six concept. We won’t see it again, unfortunately,

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