ICC World Cup: When quantity dilutes quality
While browsing a leading cricket website, an ad for cricket jerseys caught my attention. The jerseys on sale were replicas of the 1992 World Cup ones that the nine competing teams wore.
The promotional scheme was very aptly captioned,
“The iconic cricket jerseys of the 1992 World Cup”
As an overzealous follower of Pakistani cricket, I have absolutely zero issues with the jerseys being labelled iconic. After all, this was our World Cup.
The 2015 World Cup, like the 1992 one, is to be played on the unforgiving cricket wickets in Australia and their neighbour, New Zealand.
Cricket has come a long way since the 1992 edition; first World Cup to be played with white balls, coloured clothing and under floodlights.
But no tournament has ever been more competitive, since all nine teams played each other in a round robin format, top four progressing to the semi-finals.
The following edition staged in the subcontinent in 1996 saw the quarter-finals introduced for the first time. The tournament had 12 teams divided in two groups, with the top four from each progressing to the knock-out round.
Expectedly, the eight frontline Test playing nations (Australia, England, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, New Zealand and the West Indies) reached the second round.
The format was rightly criticised from all quarters, since the tournament, despite commercial viability due to the passion for the game in the region, failed to ignite sparks on the field.
Only seven games, first quarter-final onwards, had any real meaning. The four minnows, Zimbabwe, UAE, Kenya and the Netherlands, despite the odd upset in the group stage, had no chance in hell to reach the make or break knockout stage.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) shunned away the quarters in the 1999, 2003 and 2007 editions. The 1999 and 2003 editions were once again competitive with a super-six round, making both the group stage and the second round meaningful.
But, the drab that the 2007 World Cup was (involving 16 teams and featuring a super-eights second round) changed things for the worse again!
The tournament faced a major blow with-in the first week, when India and Pakistan were sent packing on the same fateful day— March 17.
The event lingered on for an eternity without India, the most commercially viable cricket nation. Pakistan was also a big draw card and, other than their sensational crash against Ireland, provided little on field action. The exit of the two teams meant a huge financial loss for both the advertisers and the organisers (West Indies Cricket Board).
The panic button was pushed once the ICC realised that there was no way they could afford to lose the big cricketing powers in the opening rounds of a World Cup anymore.
Let’s face that, despite efforts of the governing body, cricket remains a colonial sport that is competitively played in only a dozen countries around the world.
While the ICC prides in calling the biggest One Day International (ODI) tournament the ‘World Cup’, the fact of the matter is that the premier event does not come anyway close to round-the-globe-excitement and interest, as generated by the FIFA World Cup (competed by 32 teams since 1998).
The FIFA event has maintained a standard format since 1998 and, while it might not be the perfect one, the format generally provides high quality, competitive football throughout the 64 matches.
Even countries that have never qualified for the prestigious tournament have a huge fan base and keenly follow the captivating and enthralling carnival; endorsing the event’s billing as the most watched sporting spectacle in the world.
Returning to the ICC predicament, the failure of the 2007 tournament confused the authorities once again. After mulling for due course, the least competitive but ‘big team’ friendly quarter-final format was reintroduced as the tournament once again found the subcontinent, its home in 2011. Despite some exciting cricket and a few upsets, the predictable line-up of the leading nations, the exact eight teams that featured in the 1996 quarters, progressed to the last eight once again.
Three and half years on the cricket world is bracing for another edition of their most coveted prize.
The teams are spending their energies on carefully piecing together a winning formula; the itineraries of the 10 Test playing nations are filled with ODI matches in the lead-up to the tournament.
Meticulous planning aside the participants are well aware that 2015 is once again a ‘big team’ friendly edition. The same line-up of 1996 and 2011 is a strong favourite to shape the quarter-finals line-up. Even with some sporadic moments of brilliance and the odd upsets, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are set to find the tougher conditions in Australia and New Zealand overbearing.
Ireland stands the best chance among the minnows to progress through to the last eight, but only an abjectly poor run, by one of the top eight or a divine intervention, during the group stage can result in any of the smaller six teams including Bangladesh and Zimbabwe progressing through to the knockout stage.
England might be in miserable form against India, Pakistan might have been thrashed by Sri Lanka, Australia humiliated by Zimbabwe, but none of this would matter much during the 42 World Cup group matches across the 14 venues.
The actual or the ‘real action’ will only commence when the quarters begin; within a week the event will flash past our eyes. And the team that wins three matches on the trot, like the Sri Lankans did in 1996 and India did in 2011, will lift the not-so-impressive looking World Cup trophy.
In reality, the real World Cup would only feature seven games; the first 42 games like the 2011 edition provide only an extended and needless rehearsal for the main act. The 2019 edition, to be staged in England, is expected to feature 10 teams with eight top ranked ones joined by two teams winning berths after a qualifying round.
Thankfully, the new format tweak is a step in the right direction. For now though, let’s brace ourselves for some tedious and drab cricket outside the February 14 clash between the Asian gladiators defending champions India and Pakistan.
And if a team other than the eight leading Test nations line-up for the 2015 last eight round, I will proceed to eat humble pie.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.