World Cup formats: Which is the fairest of them all?
The ICC has tried different things but this much is clear: more chances give us better stories in showpiece events.
This isn’t a rant triggered by India’s failure to make the T20 World Cup semi-finals because, let’s face it, it was an anomaly. This is instead an attempt to chronicle cricket’s endeavour to make sense of their showpiece events, experimenting with formats that throw up some upsets but don’t unsettle the balance of the tournament too much. It’s a trial and error process triggered by India’s group stage exit in the 2007 World Cup with the caveat that the tweaked formats don’t make the tournaments a bore fest and that broadcasters get their deals’ worth with the top nations making it to at least the knockouts. But with the number of participants set to increase - to 14 from 10 in the 50-over World Cup from 2027 and to 20 teams from 16 in the T20 World Cup from 2024 - ICC may struggle to ensure that.
Cricket is perhaps the only team sport to have oscillated between simple and complicated formats so often in so little time. The period between 1975 and 1987 was the simplest, with a straightforward format of eight teams competing in two groups and the top two from each progressing to the semi-finals. The complications started with the introduction of the Super Sixes format (tried in 1999 and 2003) where the top-three from each group progressed carrying forward points won in the group stage. It was even more complicated in 2007 with four groups of four teams, the top two from each advancing to the Super Eights and taking points won against other qualifying teams. Calls for a tighter World Cup after the debacle in 2007 - also the longest till then - were answered with a slightly trimmed version in 2011 and 2015 and a 10-team round-robin league in 2019 (also tried in 1992) that sprung very few surprises.
More teams, more upsets?
The T20 World Cup has been slightly more consistent, sticking to a Super Eight format comprising two groups after 12 teams competed in four groups for the 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012 editions. That changed to a Super 10 with 10 teams in two groups followed by the semi-finals and final in 2014 and 2016 and now the Super 12 with 12 teams in two groups.
But the next round of expansion means the 2027 and 2031 ODI World Cups will now feature 54 matches each, with 14 teams set to be divided into two groups of seven each from where the top three will advance to a Super Sixes stage. The T20 World Cups in 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030 will comprise 55 matches each, with 20 teams to be spread across four groups of five each and the top two entering the Super Eights. With more teams in the pot, both the Super 6 and Super 8 formats in the next cycle of ICC events make it a more stiff competition where any heavyweight may be staring at an early ouster after one or two losses. Is that always a good thing though?
The odd upset makes the game a great leveller. Pakistan losing to Bangladesh and South Africa to Zimbabwe in 1999, India to Bangladesh in 2007 or England being upset by Netherlands in 2009 helped cricket spread its roots. Kenya are the only associate team till date to make it to a World Cup semi-final but their rapid disintegration after that proves that long-term planning and not upsets lead to real progress. This is something Test cricket’s newest entrants Afghanistan and Ireland - who didn’t even make it to the Super 12 after being knocked out by Namibia - are now realising. Established Test-playing nations are closer white-ball competitors than the current ICC rankings suggest. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England are all capable of going all the way. But deciding the qualifying mark can be tricky business. Only in this T20 World Cup have we seen South Africa not making the semi-finals despite winning four matches like England and Australia. India lost to Pakistan and New Zealand but the ICC doesn’t stand to gain much if the most popular cricket team isn’t at least through to the knockouts. So, how about widening the knockout stage? Or ensuring a longer, fairer chance at making the last-four? The ICC has tried both by the way.
The round-robin league - tried in 1992, 2019 and again in 2023 (in India) - is the simplest and fairest format as it gives every team a chance to bounce back despite a few bad days in office. Like how Pakistan lifted the 1992 World Cup despite losing to India, West Indies and South Africa in the group phase and being lucky that the game against England was rained out. England, the 2019 winners, were almost out of the semi-finals race after defeats against Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia but beat India and New Zealand to finally make it. The group-league followed by a last-eight knockout - tried in 1996, 2011 and 2015 - was a safe format as it ensured knockouts passage to almost every top-flight nation but left enough scope for associate nations to stage an upset or two. So West Indies reached the 1996 semi-final despite losing to Kenya in the group stage. And even if Ireland celebrated an early St Patrick’s Day in 2011 by stunning England, it didn’t impede England’s chances of reaching the quarter-finals.
Round-robin leagues won’t work in a bigger ODI World Cup. But it surely was a workable option in the T20 version. Similarly, the last-eight knockout or a Super Eight after a two-group league in the ODI version makes a lot of sense. But with the ICC already deciding on the format, chances of a fairytale comeback are all the more diminished.