April 6, 2011 2 Comments
With the World Cup final still fresh in the memory, the ICC Executive Board met on Monday and confirmed that the next tournament, to be held in Australia and New Zealand, will be contested only by the ten Test-playing full members. That means there will be no place in 2015 for associate members such as Ireland and the Netherlands.
It is a decision which says much about the ICC’s determination to maximise commercial revenues and protect its elite club of full members at the expense of the game’s global development. It will also try the patience of both fans and casual viewers, many of whom consider the current format too long and drawn-out.
In its press release following the Executive Board meeting, the ICC said:
The Executive Board confirmed their decision made in October 2010 that the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 in Australia and New Zealand and the ICC Cricket World Cup in England in 2019 will be a 10-team event. The Board agreed that the 2015 World Cup will comprise the existing 10 Full Members, however, they gave notice to all Full Members that participation in the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup will be determined on the basis of qualification. It was also agreed that post the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 there will be promotion and relegation introduced in the ODI League.
The Board had also decided in October 2010 that the ICC World Twenty20 will comprise 16 teams. This would allow six Associates or Affiliates the opportunity to participate in an ICC Global event every two years.
What’s the impact?
First of all, don’t be distracted by the expansion of the World Twenty20 tournament from 12 to 16 teams. The net effect remains that the associate member nations have been relegated from the sport’s showpiece tournament. Yes, associate members can play in an ICC tournament every two years, but it is like being told you are no longer eligible for the Champions League but can participate twice a year in the Europa League instead. It is scant consolation.
Secondly, why restrict the tournament to only the full members? The ICC one-day international rankings shows that Ireland are currently tenth, one place ahead of full member Zimbabwe. The Irish more than held their own at this World Cup, winning two matches including a thrilling triumph over England, and in the 2007 tournament even qualified for the quarter-finals ahead of Pakistan. Zimbabwe beat only lowly Canada and Kenya and have progressed beyond the initial group stage just twice in their history (1999 and 2003). Indeed, the majority of their previous participations have resulted in a bottom-place finish.
Can you imagine FIFA deciding to scrap the qualifying competition for the 2014 World Cup and instead declaring that it will only be open to the nations represented by the 24 members of its Executive Committee? I think not.
The ICC’s decision now means that an Ireland side who are more than capable of holding their own with the Test-playing nations will be unable to participate until at least 2019. And even then, that is uncertain, with the ICC cagey as to the exact qualification format. It is hard to avoid the feeling of the governing body protecting its nearest and dearest at the expense of other ‘lesser’ countries whose continued development can hardly be helped by exclusion from the top table.
Unsurprisingly, Cricket Ireland chief Warren Deutrom reacted to the news by pointing the finger directly at the ICC:
We’re outraged by this decision. It’s a betrayal of sporting principles and it flies in the face of all the evidence we saw at the World Cup, which was that an associate nation could compete with the best teams in the world.
It’s baffling but am I surprised? Not really, because clearly there are instances where protection of existing privileges is considered more important than any other principle – including those of sport, fairness and equality.
In the last four years we have been ranked above one of the teams that now has automatic qualification for the World Cup, Zimbabwe, and there isn’t a single point you can take from that that is remotely justifiable.
When questioned about the possibility of legal action, which could include an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Deutrom added:
Nothing is being ruled out at this stage. Legal action could be a relatively slippery slope but we will examine every possible option.
I have worked in the ICC for the best part of eight or nine years, and I can say that today I am ashamed to be part of that apparatus.
With entry to the World Cup now apparently barred for at least eight years, there is a danger that talented Irish players will not consider a place in the World Twenty20 tournament to be sufficient incentive and will declare themselves eligible for England or abandon cricket altogether. This would set back development of the sport in the country – it is certainly not going to encourage it. How can this be a good thing?
A mixed reaction in Australia
It has been interesting to note the divergence of reaction to this news from different stakeholders in Australia, co-hosts of the next tournament.
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland was supportive, believing that a tighter format might reinvigorate the tournament:
Fourteen [competing nations] was unwieldy and sub-optional with a lot of mis-matches and long breaks. Though there was an element of uncertainty about the David-Goliath games, it was hard to generate public interest in them.
However, the Australian media has been more critical, with the Daily Telegraph in particular pulling no punches:
Australia has just become host of cricket’s Shame Games. The showpiece 2015 World Cup, to be held in Australia and New Zealand, now carries the unmistakable stench of rampant cronyism. By banishing Ireland in favour of the game’s most corrupt country, Zimbabwe, the Afro-Asia dominated ICC has once again driven a stake through the heart of the game’s credibility.
Will a smaller World Cup be a shorter World Cup?
One of the few key arguments in support of a smaller World Cup would be the shortening of a tournament which ran to an unwieldy 43 days this time around (and 47 in 2007).
Should any global tournament take this long in an already hectic calendar? Players are away from their families for extended periods and with little opportunity to recharge their batteries between domestic seasons and international tours. This takes its toll physically but also places a heavy mental burden on players, as we saw in this tournament with Michael Yardy‘s withdrawal due to depression.
The ICC could point to the Rugby Union World Cup – this year’s tournament lasts 45 days – but the physical nature of that sport precludes games being played closer together. Besides, that competition involves 20 teams – some of whom are the equivalent of the ICC’s associate members – as opposed to cricket’s 14. And football manages to invite 32 teams to its World Cup and still have everything wrapped up in 31 days.
I know there were big commercial considerations, but was it really in anyone’s interests to have a group phase which took 30 days and 42 games to whittle 14 entrants down to eight quarter-finalists? Indeed, it was not until day 34 – nearly five weeks in – that it felt as if the tournament had started properly, when India dethroned three-time defending champions Australia. That surely cannot be right.
Thankfully, the two semi-finals and the final were thrilling affairs. But that should not cloud the fact that the excitement had been a long time coming, and we had to endure a long, hard slog to get there.
True, the move to a ten-team tournament could result in a shorter tournament. However, it was worrying to read the following tweet from the BBC’s Jonathan Aggers:
As I understand it the [Australia/New Zealand] World Cup will largely be one match per day because TV deal already done. Fewer teams but same [approximate] length.
It’s easy to see why commercial considerations could lead the ICC down this path. If true, it would certainly echo comments made by ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat, who told BBC 5 Live’s Sportsweek last Sunday that he considered the length of this year’s tournament to be fine, and that most people seemed to agree. Really?
Learning from football
I’m not normally one to praise FIFA, but the way it has expanded its World Cup should be an object lesson to the ICC. Football’s World Cup has gradually increased the number of participants without becoming bloated, in a tournament which takes just one month.
Furthermore, FIFA does not automatically protect its oldest members. The number of places reserved for European teams has gradually eroded – 13 in 2010. If qualification was based solely on historical importance or FIFA ranking Europe would have closer to 20 places, and there would be barely any teams from outside Europe and South America. (There were 14 at the 2010 tournament, six of whom were ranked outside the top 32.) Okay, that means every now and then a ‘major’ power such as England or the Netherlands fails to qualify, but the finals tournament is never any worse for that.
Just imagine what the football World Cup might be like if FIFA behaved as the ICC have just done. The World Cup would probably be reduced to just 16 teams – including Scotland as an automatic qualifier – with Asia, Africa and other smaller confederations left out in the cold. There would be one game a day, and the tournament would probably take closer to two months than one to complete. Ridiculous, no?
I realise I’m being a bit harsh on the ICC here. The differing attitudes between it and FIFA are driven largely by the political power bases in each sport: Africa/Asia in cricket versus the disproportionate power wielded by men such as CONCACAF’s odious Jack Warner in football. But the fact remains that a football World Cup is a celebration of diversity and growth in which England scrape through the group stages only to lose early in the knockout rounds, whereas the cricket World Cup is, for 2015 at least, a closed shop in which England scrape through the group stages only to lose early in the knockout rounds. One is democratic, the other an elitist boys’ club. I know which system I’m happier with.
A potential solution?
To attract casual fans and keep them engaged, the tournament certainly needs to be shorter. So what is the solution?
I would actually advocate increasing the number of teams back to 16 and returning to a format of four groups of four. This would reduce the first phase to 24 matches – this year’s two groups of seven required 42 games – and could be finished in less than two weeks, as it was in 2007. Yes, there would still be some mismatches, but viewers will accept a handful of one-sided games if they are scheduled at a decent pace. And, lest we forget, matches between bigger teams can be equally one-sided, with two of the quarter-finals in this tournament (West Indies versus Pakistan, England versus Sri Lanka) being won by ten wickets.
It would also have the benefit of making the eight qualifiers less predictable. Did we really need to spend 30 days to determine that the eight quarter-finalists would be Australia, India, Pakistan, England, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies – i.e. the top eight nations?
In 2007, the shorter group format promoted Bangladesh and Ireland into the last eight at the expense of India and Pakistan. The ICC came under fire for allowing two of their biggest markets to exit the tournament so early – which is presumably why we had the turgid groups of seven this time – but that should be the teams’ problem, not the ICC’s. Nobody wants to see too many favourites exiting early, but equally no one wants things to be utterly predictable either. Two qualifiers from groups of four is a system which has worked perfectly well at the football World Cup. Why not cricket?
After the group phase, we would move straight into knockout quarter-finals, and so on. The tournament would be done and dusted in four weeks, and the quality of the group round would undoubtedly improve with the added importance of not slipping up early on.
Of course, it will never happen. It is in the ICC’s interest to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of the tournament, and in the host nations’ interest to wring cash out of sponsors and fans – even if the quality of the product suffers as a result. And it is also important for the top countries to minimise the risk of an embarrassingly early exit. But what is the point if casual fans simply ignore the group stage, and if the smaller countries never really have a shot at progressing? How does that promote the game to a broader global audience?
The ICC’s move may well maximise the revenue-generating potential of the World Cup and keep its more powerful members happy. But if part of its role is the development of the game in terms of both participation and reaching new viewers and fans, I fear this is a sadly misguided – and utterly selfish – step backwards.
- ICC confirm decision to reduce World Cup teams (independent.co.uk)
- Ireland furious with World Cup shutout (guardian.co.uk)
- ICC decides to trim World Cup to 10 teams from 2015 with associate nations having to qualify (telegraph.co.uk)
- ICC cut World Cup numbers (mirror.co.uk)