World Cup Format: Quality or Quantity – You Prefer?

The cricket geeks I’ve known for decades now are still not tuned into the World Cup and we are a week into this tournament. When I let out a rant on Facebook regarding the dis-interest shown by them; I got various replies – the fever has not caught on, who is interested in seeing the minnows play, wake me up when the knockouts begin, why would I be watching ODIs, India plays once in 8 days – I’ll tune in then.

I started watching the World Cup from 1992 and I have to admit that even my interest in the tournament has been on a decline – and it reached its abyss in 2007 when India and Pak were knocked out in the group stage failing to make the Super 8; and no team came close to put up a fight against the Aussies. There is hardly an exciting match that I can recall in that edition, given that the most exciting WC matches I can recollect over the years do not necessarily involve India.

Even on my twitter timeline the cricket gurus are debating on what would be the ideal format. I think the ICC needs to follow all the cricket fans and journalists on twitter cause they could get some idea to model the 2015 tournament slated to be played down under.

Here is a short history of the formats adopted in the tournament since its inception.

The first 3 editions of the tournament saw 8 teams participate in 2 groups – top 2 from each group made it to the semis and the tournament lasted a mere 2 weeks and for 15 matches.

There was no change in number of teams that competed in the 1987 edition, but for some reason the organizers felt that playing each other once in the group stage was not enough and there was a double round robin league to give teams a fair chance at playing each other. The matches almost doubled up to 27 and so did the time to a month.

1999 introduced the Super Six stage which increased the tournament length without arousing any fan interest. 2007 hit an all-time bottom due to the Super 8 stage where India and Pak were knocked out in the group stage and Ireland/Bangladesh made it to the super 8 which became a huge farce as they suffered heavy defeats effectively leaving the Super 8 stage more of a Super 6 stage.

I can understand when a soccer world cup spans a month. There are 32 competing nations and the tournament is preceded by pre-qualifiers that last 3 years and span 190 nations. Plus the matches last for not more than 2 hours which in effect leads to a 63 match – 158 hour tournament from end-to-end. Compare that to a cricket world cup – where 14 teams are competing. A cricket match lasts 8 hours. You schedule 42 group stage matches, followed by 7 knockout matches. A total of 49 matches spanning 392 hours. You could hold 2 soccer world cups in that time. To expect your viewer to be tuned into 392 hours of exciting cricket is to expect the moon.

People are increasingly finding it difficult to take time out from their lives to watch long matches and when they do – you cannot be ruining their time by making them watch an Ireland Vs Kenya match which by the way is never going to produce cricket comparable to an India Vs Australia match.

Post 1987 organizers focussed on increasing the matches and giving the audience opportunities to watch ODIs since test match viewership was going downhill and ODIs looked to be the life-saver that cricket needed. In addition to the longer World Cup championship, ICC commenced the ICC Championship Trophy in 2000 – a Mini WC where only the top teams contested. Though the ODIs were heading towards an overdose, they were still being digested by the viewers worldwide. However, things changed post 2000, when the test scenario did a 180 degree turn producing more results and tightly contested matches with superior quality of cricket. Test cricket looked to be breathing again and started clocking more viewership than the ODIs. The arrival of T20 format in 2007 and then the IPL almost hit a nail in the coffin of ODI viewership.

Despite the warnings, ICC has failed to see the downturn to hit the ODI format. Clearly the ODIs are struggling to keep their place in between the long and the short version of the game and organizing never-ending tournaments is not going to help the cause of this format. I cannot recollect many a ODIs in the past decade but can recall almost each and every test match played.

ICC will not do away with playing associate countries in the big tournament but there has to be some restriction on the quality and number of teams qualifying for the tournament. Personally though I feel they should play the T20 World Cup – more chances of a upset there than the ODIs. Given the little cricket I’ve seen them play so far, they are decades away from qualifying as test nations. If the aim is to spread the game far and wide, ICC needs to hold more pre-qualifiers rather then giving multiple teams entry into the big set-up.

Obviously the World Cup Championship will never be cancelled in the immediate future so the little they can do to salvage the future of this tournament is by altering its format and keeping it simple and short.

Here are a few suggestions to the ICC –

  • Scrap the ICC Championship Trophy – What value addition is this tournament giving to the game and the ODI format?
  • Restrict the number of associate teams to qualify for the world cup to a maximum of 2. The rest can be happy playing T20 and the likes.
  • The top 8 test playing nations qualify while the bottom 2 (Zim and Bangladesh obviously) fight it out with the associates in the pre-qualifiers for the last 2 spots.
  • Follow the format of the first 3 world cups – 2 groups, 5 teams in each, round-robin at group stage, semis and final. Total of 23 matches played over 3 weeks. Viewership retained for all matches.
  • Alternatively, scrap the weaker and associate teams and have the top 8 teams play a round-robin format similar to the one ‘92 WC , semis and then finals. Total of 31 matches played under a month. Every top team plays each other resulting in some sustained interest in the league stage.
  • Both formats should keep the interest of the viewer alive, the tournament will not stretch beyond imagination and thereby, leave no room for boredom.
  • Hold 2 matches per day – especially the ones involving minnows in order to ensure the days reduce. Watch Austalia Vs Zimbabwe alone on a day – sorry I’ll skip that. New Zealand Vs Kenya and Sri Lanka Vs Canada – maybe I’ll tune in to both and toggle between the two at interesting junctures ( if any)
  • Finally, tie-up with the Cricinfo Fantasy League and get the top 3 rankers to watch the semis and finals. It is one thing that has helped me sustain my interest in the group stages and not grumble like my friends who are not playing this game and dying out of boredom from watching a Kenya Vs Canada.
There go my suggestions to the ICC to save the World Cup – prefer the quality over the quantity. You tell me what would you prefer?