Sunday 14 July 2019

A better World Cup format

As this world cup draws to a close, I've been thinking about the positives and negatives of the format.

There are quite a few of both.

Firstly the positives:

  1. Everyone plays each other.
  2. Not too many matches that seem like a mismatch on paper.
  3. Teams that lose a couple of games early still have the chance to compete.
  4. Guaranteed 9 matches for India, so the ICC get enough money to keep growing international cricket.
  5. There was a match or two every day through the majority of the tournament, so that the momentum built towards the finals.
Then the negatives:

  1. Not enough representation from lower level teams. The qualification was too difficult, and so the goal of making the world cup became unrealistic for most teams.
  2. There were only 3 matches in the final week, meaning that the momentum was lost.
  3. Dead rubbers, or similar - 3 teams were effectively eliminated with 2 weeks to go.
  4. Incomplete rounds - India being 2 matches behind made the narratives and changes in fortune less obvious. 
  5. Pitches were too different from how they've played over the past 4 years, meaning that there was too much of a role of luck in the event. 
The negatives are too great to mean that it's a good idea to continue with the same format in my opinion. But, the positives are things worth keeping.

So, using those positives as constraints as much as possible, and also keeping the tournament to the same length, I have come up with a format that I believe will make for a better event.

The concept: 

So far the thinking about cricket world cups has been that it has to either be a group format or a league format. I'm suggesting a conference format instead.

The structure:

The tournament would have 16 teams. There are currently 14 teams that are genuinely competitive in international cricket (the 12 full nations, Netherlands and Scotland), and a few others who are getting close (Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates for example). 16 teams would mean that, while there will be some mismatches, there are still places for some teams to aspire towards getting to. Any mismatches will not be more dramatic than West Indies victory over Pakistan or New Zealand's demolition of Sri Lanka.

The 16 teams will be broken into 4 buckets based on rankings, and also 4 conferences (each conference will have one team from each bucket, randomly drawn).

Every team will play the other 3 teams in their conference, then also 4 other teams, one from each bucket.

After that there would be 5 different leader-boards. The 4 conference tables would have their own points, and the top team from each group would qualify for the major qualification finals. Then the rest of the teams would get their qualification positions from the overall table.

This would result in 7 rounds, with 5 lasting 4 days and 2 lasting 5 days (to make sure every round has at least one Friday, Saturday or Sunday in it, and to allow some easing of tight schedules)

The major qualification finals would see the top ranked group winner play the 4th ranked group winner (based off the overall table) while the second ranked group winner would play the 3rd ranked group winner. The winner of these matches would be straight into the semi finals, while the loser would go into the major quarter finals.

The whole system is shown in the diagram below:

Teams 9 to 16 would be decided by their placings in the overall table.

This would allow a team that finished 8th in the first round to still have a chance to make the final, but the path would be difficult. However, they could also end up in 12th place after the play offs.

This system would result in a lot of matches being played, roughly 1.6 matches per day, as opposed to the current World Cup that has 48 matches in 51 days. Teams would generally be playing every 3-5 days, and no team would go a week without a match, or play 2 matches inside 3 days.

There would only be 2 days without any matches. This could be avoided if the final couple of group matches were in the same city (or a neighboring one) as the first couple of qualification finals. But there would be the chance if that happened that a team would have no day off between matches, which is not ideal.

This would require at least 10 grounds, with at least 6 having floodlights (or being in a different time zone) Ideally, the host would have 12 grounds. This is problematic, as the requirement of the World Cup is clean stadiums, so every extra ground increases the cost of hosting.

However, having the smaller teams play, means that there is room for smaller, regional stadiums to be used, and most countries can find 12 grounds that can be prepared to the correct standard if they need to. It also could facilitate regional collaborations - perhaps an East Africa/Middle East collaboration with hosing shared between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Oman and UAE. 

Potential issues:

There will be some concern about the number of on-paper mismatches. However, the smaller teams actually have tended to do well in most of their matches against the top teams. There are still blow outs, but they are not nearly as common as people think. Often the quality of the 4th and 5th bowlers are not good enough, and the batting of the lower order and tail is normally pretty poor with the second tier sides. But their best 7 players are normally good enough to compete for the majority of the match.

A potential solution to that is also to schedule the potential mismatches as day games on days where the night match is a more eagerly anticipated match up.

But without the opportunity to play better team on big occasions, there's significantly reduced opportunity for lower ranked teams to get better. 

The pitch conditions are still a potential issue. This can be solved by having the ICC pitch manager involved in the preparation of the pitches for the year leading up to the event. That way, the expectations will be able to be practiced by the ground staff, and any adjustments to get the pitches as they are desired will be able to be made. Occasionally playing List A matches 3 or 4 days apart on the same pitch will also be important in order to allow teams to understand how they are likely to play.

The extra matches will cost more to cover, and that cost might not be able to be recouped by the production company. This is a risk, but the value will be higher, due to improved scheduling and more interested markets. 

Big advantages:

The competition will gain momentum, rather than lose it, but teams will not be out after a couple of early losses. There will be opportunity for the lower sides to earn upsets, but they will have mostly evenly balanced, winnable matches towards the end of the competition. 

Every team will play at least 9 matches, most will play 11 matches. 

There will be almost no possible scenario where there will be a dead rubber. The only possible exception is if two teams play each other who are both guaranteed to be in the bottom 4, or if two teams who are guaranteed to be in the top 8, and are likely to top their groups, play in the last non-conference round.

I think this would find a good balance between the commercial and competitive requirements, and would also create an avenue for growth (3 conferences of 6 would also be a potential format).

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