The decision by the ICC to reduce the number of teams competing in the 2015 Cricket World Cup from 14 to 10 has drawn a reasonable amount of comment, both positive and negative, but surely it is the wrong solution to the correct identification of the problems with the current and recent formats of the competition.
The Cricket World Cup has been through seemingly endless variations of format already, and given that we are now only witnessing the tenth tournament the lack of consistency can hardly be helpful.
The number of teams in the competition began at eight, and for the first four tournaments (1975-1987) the format was largely the same: two groups of four with Semi-finals and a Final. By 1992, the tournament was expanded to five weeks and nine teams (to include the newly-reinstated South Africans), and the first round was a single group round robin.
The 2003, 2007 and 2011 World Cup tournaments have averaged more than 50 matches per tournament, have each taken more than six weeks, and have included 14 or 16 teams competing.
Clearly, the tournament has now become bloated, and both the time span and number of matches involved is becoming a turn-off for fans of the game. As Mike Holmans notes, the problem with the current tournament is that unless one of the Associate Nations has a particularly good run, we know who is expected to make the Super Eights, and the group stage matches have little relevance to the overall tournament, and he correctly points out that “This does not augur well for drama: it's just about certain that by the time we get to the group match between Sri Lanka and Australia in three weeks time, for instance, there will only be bragging rights at stake.”
The ICC seems to have realised this, but their response, rather than reducing the number of games that are meaningless, has been to reduce the number of teams involved, removing the Associate Nations from the World Cup entirely. The only previous occasion when no Associate Members were permitted in the tournament was 1992. Despite criticism, the ICC appear to be sticking with their decision.
The proponents of a World Cup focused solely on the Full Member Nations argue that the disparity in performance between them and the Associate Members is so wide that having the smaller teams at the World Cup provides little benefit. Ricky Ponting is on the record as stating that the World Cup will be a better event without them.
Ponting also indicated that he thinks that these teams don’t learn much when they “are getting hammered”, but this seems to discount the efforts of Kenya in 2003 reaching the Semi-finals, and Ireland in 2007, both of whom ejected more illustrious opponents from the competition, showing that the Associate Members are not just there to get a hammering.
Naturally, the Associate Members themselves are less than happy about the decision, and have questioned the ICC’s thinking. The decision was made by a Working Party that included Full Member representation, but nobody from the Associate Member Nations. Although they have been given additional places in the World T20 tournament instead, many, including England spinner Graeme Swann, feel that taking them out of the World Cup lessens the appeal of the tournament as a global one.
Abhilash Mudaliar makes a good point about the competitiveness of individual matches and the need for highlight games to be scheduled accordingly, but shies away from the crux of the argument: the problem with the World Cup is not the lack of competitive games being played, it is the number of meaningless games, and there is a distinct difference: under the current format, most of these meaningless games are between the Full Member Nations, not games involving the Associate Members, because the games involving the Associate Members are the only opportunities we will have to see if there is an outside chance of one of them making the second stage. All the games between Full Members are basically just jockeying for position in the latter stages.
The solution? Rather than reducing the number of teams to 10, the ICC should return to a 16-team format, with four groups of four where each team plays the others in their group once. The top two qualify for the Quarter-finals. We ditch the Super-eight stage.
This has the advantage of reducing the tournament to 31 games, which it should be possible to play in under a month. It allows for six Associate Members. It means that every game is vital, even in the group stages. It still gives the Test Nations the best chance of qualifying for the latter stages because the groups can be seeded, yet an Associate Nation may only need one victory over a Full Member Nation to advance.
The format worked very well for FIFA’s World Cups between 1958 and 1978 and is still the basis for the 32-team FIFA World Cup.
Given the strength of feeling on this and the recent progression from some of the Associate Nations, it seems a retrograde step to exclude them from future World Cups, when the problems that have arisen from the last two tournaments can be solved so simply.