Despite bilateral series being played all over the world, countries have their eyes set on the ICC Cricket World Cup to be played in England next June. With less than 7 months left, the tension and excitement is set to build up as teams finalize on the squads that will travel to England to battle it for the coveted trophy.
Unlike the last edition, only the top 10 teams will battle it out for the prize this time as ICC have decided to trim it down from the 14 teams that battled it out last time. The ICC felt that the competition at the start was too monotonous and had too many inconsequential matches before the knockout stages.
Thus, ICC decided to allow the top 8 ODI teams to gain direct participation for the World Cup and organized a World Cup qualifier with the likes of Windies, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Ireland battling it out with the associates to grab the final two spots. Windies and Afghanistan made it through to the World Cup with the likes of Scotland and Ireland narrowly missing out.
But the question to be asked here is if limiting the World Cup to just 10 teams ideal for the development of the game? Cricket still remains a sport that is alien to most countries around the world and if countries are denied entry into the premier tournament in the world, the youngsters will lose the motivation to actively pursue the sport.
Looking back at previous World Cups, it is quite clear that the most uninspiring tournament was the one held in West Indies in 2007. The major reason was that India and Pakistan were shockingly packed off in the first round and this was not good for the game commercially as the two most followed nations were knocked out early. The other reason was that there were too many meaningless and one-sided games that involved teams like Bermuda, Scotland, Netherlands and Kenya. But the beauty of the very same tournament was that Bangladesh and Ireland punched above their weights to knock out more fancied opponents to make it to the Super 8 stage. Bangladesh, who also shocked South Africa in the Supper 8 stage, turned a corner after this tournament.
We’ve also seen India and Sri Lanka lift the trophy in 1983 and 1996 respectively when not even their most ardent supporters would have given them a chance of winning the cup. These unexpected success stories revolutionized the game in India and Sri Lanka and paved the way to them become global superpowers in the sport.
Ireland has performed admirably in each of their World Cup appearances. They shocked Pakistan in 2007 to make it to the Super 8, pulled off a miraculous run chase over neighbours England in 2011 and once again completed a 300-plus run chase against West Indies. Their consistency saw them gain test match status last year and they also gave the visiting Pakistanis a run for their money in their debut test match this year.
Afghanistan’s emergence over the past five years is a remarkable success story in itself. The war-torn nation has seen an incredible and rapid rise despite all the problems back home. The fairytale has seen them secure test status along with Ireland and they’ve also become a formidable force thanks to their spinners Mujeeb, Rashid Khan and Mohammed Nabi. They’ve challenged the top sides and could develop into a consistent team with more experience at the top level.
How cricket can learn from football
There’s no doubt that the FIFA World Cup this summer in Russia was an absolute spectacle. The tournament’s format is unforgiving and a shock defeat could make qualification to the knockout stages difficult. Defending champions Germany suffered a shock first round exit and the likes of Argentina, Spain and Portugal were also knocked out early. Dark horses England and Croatia had phenomenal tournaments and made it to the semi-final and final respectively. The beauty of football is that it is a global sport and the exit of one team isn’t going to hamper the tournament viewership too much and the success stories of these unfancied teams is what makes football compelling to watch.
If cricket truly wants to attract a wider audience globally, the governing bodies need to be smarter and involve the smaller nations in such tournaments. Restricting the tournament to 10 teams surely isn’t the way forward.
However, ICC also needs to be cautious in involving too many teams. The Euro 2016 was probably one of the most boring tournaments in recent history as they expanded it from a 16-team to 24-team tournament. This involved too many teams that were not up to the competition’s standards and the eventual winners Portugal scraped through to the knockout stage without winning a single game in the group stage.
What would be a more suitable format?
A 12-team World Cup would be the most ideal format, both commercially and in a competitive sense. This would mean that two more teams from Ireland, Scotland and Zimbabwe would find a spot in the tournament.
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Divide the twelve teams into two pots of six teams each, with the top three teams from each pot making it to a Super 6 stage with Points being carried forward from the first round. More importantly, the semi-finals could be replaced by the IPL-style playoff format that rewards consistency throughout the tournament and actually provides teams with a reason to fight for a spot in the top 2, rather than just look to make it to the top 4 in a semi-final format.
This format would be similar to the one employed in the 1999 World Cup and this would increase the competitiveness in the tournament. The 1999 World Cup saw England, Sri Lanka and West Indies knocked out at the end of a fiercely contested first phase of the competition. Australia also nearly missed out on qualification to the Semi-final stage as they had zero Points carried forward due to their losses to the qualified team of their group in the first round.
This would be an ideal format as this would make every match meaningful, unlike in the previous two World Cups where securing a place in the top 4 stage of the group stage was all that mattered.
It’s important for ICC to maintain the right balance between making the tournament competitive and also ensuring that the sport is globalized by enabling more teams to participate in not just the World Cup, but also by ensuring that these smaller nations get to play against the test playing nations.
So a 12-team World Cup with the above mentioned format might be right way to go in 2023 to ensure that each match has some relevance attached to it, which would also lead to an increase in the viewership.