ICC’s decision regarding the 2019 Cricket World Cup format has not been popular. Descriptions range between a restrained “slightly disappointing” from Tendulkar, to the unabashed “absolute bonkers” from the late Martin Crowe. The new format reduces the number of participating teams down to ten, four less than the 2011 and 2015 editions, and six less than the 2007 one. This format was last used in 1996, 23 years ago. Despite the lesser number of teams, the number of matches has only reduced by 1 (48 from 49) from the 2015 World Cup. Each team plays nine games, and the top four reach the semi-finals. Many critics have expressed their dismay at the exclusion of associate nations, for whom the World Cup is the only time they have a chance to receive some international recognition. Others have cynically stereotyped this decision as just another money grab by the ICC, a shell for the Big Three (Australia, England, and India). This article examines these claims and discusses why this shift prioritising the top ten might not be in the best interest of world cricket.
There are three main criticisms of the format, two of which have already been highlighted: 1) that it has been motivated by greed, 2) it excludes associate nations, and 3) underdog teams like Bangladesh who might have had a chance at progression in a round robin system will find it much harder to make it to the semi finals. In response to the first criticism, the ICC claims that reducing the number of teams minimises the chances of a dud match, maximising the entertainment value of the World Cup. Many see this as a cover for their true intention, which is to garner as much money as possible from sponsors. The elimination of Pakistan and India early in the 2007 World Cup was not good for business, and many claim the ICC is keen to avoid a repeat of the incident. The World Cup is the most prestigious tournament in all of cricket, and it cannot afford having its big teams out early. Every team playing every other team ensures that teams like England, India, and Australia are guaranteed a minimum of nine games, guaranteeing viewers’ persistent interest in the tournament. Given the financial model that the ICC operates under, the decision to sacrifice associate nations does seem to have been taken in bad faith. The ICC generates most of its money through international tournaments like the World Cups, which is then redistributed among its member nations. However, the big three receive a vast majority of this funding, despite their ability to sustain themselves on much lower than their allocated amount. This is particularly true for the BCCI, who also receive the most funding to the tune of 405 million dollars. Associate nations receive only 14% from a cash pool of around $1600 mil. If the ICC genuinely cared about promoting cricket globally, restructuring their model to allocate more funds towards nations that need them seems like the best option by far. This would make them more competitive, increase the global cricket fanbase, and significantly increase the participation in existing and any new tournaments. Immediate commercial gains have trumped more and better cricket in more countries that will eventually also lead to profitability.
On the exclusion of associate nations, it is important to remember here that Scotland were five runs away from qualifying for the 2019 World Cup over West Indies in a match curtailed by rain. The same match also saw an unlucky decision that went against Scotland that was perhaps decisive in establishing the Windies as victors. While Scotland ultimately failed to upset their opponents, past World Cups have seen several examples of associate nations excelling. Kenya reached the semi final in 2003, while Bangladesh upset India in 2007, while Ireland eliminated Pakistan in the same year. Everyone loves an underdog, and upsets form some of the most memorable moments in World Cup history. Besides, the World Cup is a rare opportunity for these teams to compete with the best, an experience that can only help them improve their game. More teams means more groups, and the likelier it is for a team outside the top five to make it to the quarter-finals or beyond. Lumping all the teams into one group, with each having to play nine games reduces competition and benefits the top teams because they can easily recover from a couple or more bad games. Consequently, teams like Bangladesh will struggle to progress even if they manage a few upsets. Add a game or two that end with a no result due to rain, and the odds are heavily stacked against the minnows.
The old format of the World Cup provided some levelling measure to reduce the gap between the top and bottom teams, but the new one not only reduces the number of teams, it also disadvantages teams that are in the lower half on the top ten rankings. Moreover, a ‘World’ Cup with only ten teams, down from a potential sixteen, is simply not doing justice to the name. On the brighter side, the constant shifting in format that the World Cup has seen over the past few editions indicates that this too might be a temporary measure that could well be reversed. As mentioned earlier, the last four (including this one) have included three different numbers of teams. Maybe this will prove to just be an experiment. Or, as the Proteas have shown, some things will never change.