The Cricket World Cup starts on Valentines Day and will end, 43 days and 49 matches later, well after spring has sprung. It is perhaps inevitable that a tournament where each match lasts six hours and involves up to 600 deliveries is a marathon and not a sprint. Yet, despite entering its eleventh iteration, nobody has stumbled across the World Cup’s ideal format.
Its size and structure has regularly been rejiggered over the years. The early Cups now appear delightfully innocent and naïve, with everything hastily cobbled together in a style more fitting of a school fete than a global tournament. The inaugural competition in 1975 was all over in a couple of weeks, with two qualifying groups of four leading into semi-finals. It consisted of the then seven full members, Sri Lanka, plus, for obscure reasons, an East African side comprising players from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.
The next couple of World Cups pootled along in a similar vein, although by the second tournament there was at least a qualification competition for the associate teams. The move from England to the subcontinent in 1987 was an early sign of the changing winds blowing through the sport, and featured 50 overs per innings for the first time. Then there was the 1992 World Cup, in Australasia, where the players wore colored clothes and played in a league of nine teams followed by semi-finals.
After that came what now looks like the expansionist years. The number of teams grew, first to twelve in 1996 and ultimately to sixteen in 2003. Along with this growth came a confusing mess of qualifying formats, which included a Super Six and a Super Eight stage, points carried over from one round to the next, and groups of four, six, and seven teams.
The central contradiction of the World Cup, and the reason it has been so regularly revised, is that what makes for compelling viewing is often divorced from the needs of the competition organizers. For example, despite all of the other problems of the 2007 World Cup, India’s early exit was a fascinating failure of one of the fancied nations and a victory for the underdogs of Bangladesh. However it also meant that most of India did not bother to watch the rest of the tournament, which in turn created disappointed television executives, angry advertisers, and miffed sponsors. So the next time around, in 2011, the groups were effectively rigged to make sure that the big boys could not fail. Some of the cricket was excellent and India’s ultimate triumph was uplifting but - even though there was several upsets - none of the smaller teams got past the first stage.
Indeed those in charge have come to see the very presence of these associate nations as an irritant. This year there will be four of them and, yes, some of their fixtures will involve a thrashing, as will some matches including Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, and quite possibly the West Indies. But their inclusion is not merely the price for spreading the game globally, the results of which can be phenomenal. They bring unique, extraordinary narratives to the tournament, whether it is the Afghanistan’s rise through the ranks, Ireland’s giant-killing wins, or the United Arab Emirate’s group of dedicated amateurs.
Instead administrators are lured by the low-hanging fruit of Indian money, which means that everything must be predicated on a single market. It ensures money in the short term - although people will likely tire of incessant matches between the top three or four sides - but fails to consider the future. For now the furthest the cricketing authorities will look is the 2019 World Cup, when they have determined that only ten teams will compete. It will mean another different format and another change of direction for one of the biggest tournaments in global sport.
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