Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Thoughts on the World Cup format, and the opening match

While this World Cup follows recent tournaments in being too long, I think the present format is a substantial improvement on the previous ones. The last two tournaments divided the teams up into two pools, and played a round robin in each pool. The leading three teams in each group went through to the "Super Six" stage, in which they played the teams they had not played already. Points scored against teams that also went through were carried over, and points against teams that dropped out were not(*). At the end of the Super six, the six teams would have then played each other once in total, and the points table would reflect this.

The advantage of this system is that the relative strength of the two groups would be less of an influence on the semi-finalists than in a system with a longer knock-out stage. (For the ICC, the advantage was that it would make the tournament longer).

However, once the 1999 tournament started, various other issues came to light. For one thing, it meant that the results of very early games were still important quite late in the tournament. Some sides like to start relatively slowly and then raise their form as the important games arise. However, in this format some of the important games were very early. (Although some sides complained about this, in practice, this may have actually improved the tournament. Australia lost two games early, and then discovered that they could not afford to lose another game in the entire tournament. This led to an air of do or die desperation on their part that allowed them to raise their game to a point they might not have been able to in an easier situation, and led to some classic cricket).

Worse, than that, nobody knew which were the important games until later. As there were only six teams in the super six and as then (as now) there were eight strong teams, there was considerable doubt as to who would go through, and therefore from which games the points won would ultimately count. For a side that had qualified, the number of points carried over could be quite different depending on the results of other matches that were entirely out of the control of that side. In 2003, several games were defaulted by sides refusing to play games in Kenya or Zimbabwe, which led to weaker sides going through to the super six, points from these defaults ultimately determining places in the semi-finals as well as the super six, and points from very easy matches being carried over into the super six and points from very difficult ones being dropped.

This time, the format is a "Super Eight". The teams have been divided into four pools of four. Two teams go through to the super eight. Points against other teams that go through are carried over as with the super six, but this will only be points from one game. The lesser teams get to play three games each: enough to give them a taste of the tournament, but not so many games that they become a distraction in the more serious parts of the tournament. It is fairly clear which games will have points carried over in the early stages - those against the other strong teams. If it does not ultimately work out this way, it will be the fault of the side that doesn't carry over the points. Unpredictable events involving third parties are much less likely to come into it. When it comes to decide the semi-finalists, the vast bulk of the points taken into consideration (six sevenths) will have been played in the super eight stage and not the pool stage.

This all means that there are three kinds of matches in the pool stage. Firstly, there are games between two sides that are likely to go through to the super eight - these are important matches for the later stage of the tournament and the competing teams know this. Secondly, there are games between a likely qualifier and a non-likely qualifier. These are important in the sense that the likely qualifiers have to make sure not to lose them in order to make sure that they do in fact make the super eight, but how they manage it does not matter much. (Even if a strong side does lose one of these, they can still go through if they ensure they win their other games convincingly, and if this happens, the results of the upset probably do not cascade through). And there are games between two likely non-qualifiers. These are probably not big games from the perspective of the outcome of the tournament, but they are big games for the teams involved, as they are their best chance to play positive and winning criket in the tournament.

However, the carrying of points over does make at least some of the early round matches more important for the good sides. If there were no points carried over, the games between the two stronger sides would be of virtually no significance at all. As it is, they are games that they must concentrate on winning. One question applying to the first round of the tournament is one of the order of matches. Do strong sides prefer to have their "important" match first, then play the lesser sides, then get back into the series stuff, or do they prefer to play the weaker sides first, and then play the seven stronger sides one after another. Pakistan and the West Indies had the first situation, playing yesterday. South Africa and Australia, and also India and Sri Lanka have the second, playing each other right at the end of the first round. (India and Sri Lanka have the tougher group, as Bangladesh might be able to cause an upset earlier. If that happens, the final game in that group becomes a desperate scrap). England and New Zealand play in the middle of the group.

As it happens, in the first two days of the tournament, the schedule has given us one game of each of the three kinds. Yesterday, the opening game of the tournament was the first kind. Hosts the West Indies took on Pakistan. Pakistan's preparation has been terrible, and of the "big eight" teams, they are the one I was most likely to write off going in to the tournament. They lived up to that yesterday. Pakistan were able to take some early wickets (but not really enough to put them on top), and this was enough to slow the West Indian start, getting to a modest 3/77 off 23.5 overs. Pakistan also prevented any West Indian from getting a big score. However, the West Indians put in a solid team effort, with Lara, Bravo, and Samuels scoring runs, and Smith and Collymore doing the sometimes difficult thing of boosting the run rate when wickets fell at the end. 9/241 looked a decend score, although the question still remains as to what is and isn't a good score in this tournament. In this game, it was plenty. Pakistan just didn't get into it. They didn't try to go for much of a run rate, and lost wickets anyway, fallying to 6/116 off 32.5 overs. After that Shoaib Malik scored 62 off 54 balls, but the match was already lost and he didn't get Pakistan back into it. It was a pretty pathetic effort from them, but a good effort from the West Indies. Smith had a fine game taking 3/36 off his ten overs after scoring 32 off 15 balls. The West Indies completed an easy 54 run win.

Today we have Scotland v Australia and Kenya v Candada. Australia really need to win this one very easily to demonstrate that they are at least something like a little over their recent bad form. Scotland have been making remarks about fancying their chances, but Australia will be much too good. The question is by how much. Kenya v Canada should be more intersting, although Kenya have much more experience of this level of cricket than do Canada. Kenya should easily win this one. If they do not, then they have wasted quite a bit of ICC development money and the development they should have got out of quite a few games against good opposition.

(*) Note to purists. Yes, I am aware this that this was changed slightly in 2003. I am simplifying a little to make a point. For practical purposes the change made no difference.

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