A formula for World Cup inclusivity

The possible expansion of the Men’s 50-over World Cup, from 10 to 14 teams, is set to be discussed later this month. Here’s Adam Collins contribution to our June 2019 edition, a compelling proposal for the very same amendment.


BACK TO THE FUTURE

There is an accepted wisdom when considering the ICC’s decision to gut this edition of the World Cup by reducing it from 14 teams to ten.

It goes back to 2007, when the tournament swelled to 16 participants. In an effort to mimic the structure of football tournaments, groups of four were initiated, with two progressing from each. The problem was, on one fateful St Patrick’s Day, Ireland stunned Pakistan and Bangladesh swamped India. The two former winners were eliminated, having played just three games apiece. TV numbers on the subcontinent plummeted and, well, you know what that means.

The legacy of 2007 remains unmistakable but the whole sorry saga could have been entirely avoided had the lessons of eight years earlier been better understood. Namely, the maligned Super Six stage that debuted when England last played host. Two decades on, it’s time to reappraise this innovation, to look at how it fell out of fashion, and to understand why it can be the future of a truly inclusive event.

***

Super Sixes. Super Overs. Super Series. Cricket had been turbocharged before the T20 revolution. And the supersizing of the nomenclature can be linked back to Terry Blake, the 1999 World Cup tournament director.

On his appointment in early 1996, one of the first visits Blake made was to that year’s cricket World Cup on the subcontinent, where the inclusion of three Associate nations – Kenya, UAE and the Netherlands – made it the biggest yet. But the execution wasn’t well thought out: the group stages only reduced the pool from 12 qualifiers to eight quarter-finalists. A “ludicrous format” wrote Wisden editor Matthew Engel. “Everyone meandered around the subcontinent for three weeks simply to reduce nine serious contenders to eight.”

Upon returning home, Blake reported back the same view. And so the choice for 1999 became scrapping newcomers in order to revert to the 1992 ‘all-play-all’ draw or change the parameters that two groups of six would play under. He recommended the latter.

“We couldn’t again have these meaningless group games that ended with a quarter-final stage that everyone could have predicted,” Blake says. “And we also couldn’t go back from 12 teams; that would have been politically impossible at the time. So we just chopped it up differently. Instead, I said I would like to create a Super Six.”

The alliterative “super” tag was a product of Blake’s other day job: he remained the marketing supremo of the TCCB, the forerunner of the ECB, throughout his time running the World Cup, all with just a handful of staff. “Although I was a marketeer – well, perhaps because I was a marketeer – I wanted it to be competitive, even though two teams were losing out on progressing,” he says of his thought process. At this point, he handed his proposal for a six-team second stage over to those on the cricket side of the business at ECB headquarters, including John Carr, director of cricket operations.

“One of John’s first jobs was wrestling with how to get the teams forward from the Super Six into the semifinals,” recalls Blake. Carr, who was then two years into his administration career after serving as a dependable Middlesex batsman for a decade, spent many late nights at Lord’s trying to solve this problem.

At ICC board level, David Richards, its inaugural chief executive, reported the new format had been landed for 1999. It satisfied the board’s desire to see that “each Full Member would play more Full Members” than in 1996. “This would be achieved by taking the top three from two groups of six after a preliminary ‘round-robin’ series,” the 1997 meeting minutes stated. “These six teams would play a super league, with each country playing the three teams from the group who they had not previously played.”

The board’s approval was granted and this quirky Super Six stage was officially coming to the 1999 World Cup.

***

“I still think it was an interesting and novel idea,” says Tim Lamb, ECB chief executive in 1999. “An innovative concept.” This was the widespread response at the time of its announcement, Blake suggesting that anybody who sat through the 1996 group stage was looking for change.

“Cricket fans with a taste for the esoteric looked at the small print of the rules and regs and nodded with wise approval,” added Paul Weaver in the Guardian.

What stood out as especially nifty was how points from the group stage would be carried forward, meaning the results that sides progressing to the Super Six recorded against each other in the group stage would stand. So at the end of the Super Six, every game would have mattered. The contrast to 1996 was clear.

“We were just unlucky with how it all panned out,” says Lamb of what happened next. “It threw up a few quirks didn’t it?”

On 30 May, across one messy afternoon in Manchester and Birmingham, the Super Six went from an elegant solution to an embarrassing problem.

***

Net run rate (NRR) by now had become the customary tie-breaker in ODI tournament play. So, when Group B reached its pointy end, Steve Waugh identified this as something that could be manipulated in concert with the quirk of the Super Six carry-over points system.

Pakistan and New Zealand had both comfortably accounted for the Australians earlier in the competition, leaving them with the task of having to win every subsequent game to stay alive. Up against West Indies, it was sudden death for both teams, the victor to secure the third available spot in the Super Six. Or so it seemed to most onlookers.

Bowling first, Glenn McGrath did as he did so often in the games that mattered most, his 5 for 14 from 8.4 overs including one of the best deliveries of his illustrious career, uprooting Brian Lara’s off stump with an utterly unplayable ball. On another day, this would have been the only story. Instead, West Indies being skittled for 110 barely rated a mention. Nor did Australia’s gentle progress to 92 for 4 by the end of the 28th over.

At that juncture, Steve Waugh was at the crease with Michael Bevan in the scenario that he had spent time thinking about before the game. Sure, Australia needed to win, but if they could help West Indies improve their NRR just enough by crawling to the line, there was the chance to help their opponents overtake New Zealand. If this worked, went the logic, Australia would carry a win against West Indies into the Super Six table rather than their loss against the Kiwis.

The next 12 overs was a nightmare for architects of the tournament as Australia collected the final 19 runs they required for victory, leaving no ambiguity about what they were up to. The Old Trafford crowd booed in disapproval. One spectator raced out at the end to relay this dissatisfaction to the Australian skipper. It wasn’t quite Brian Rose declaring in the second over of a B&H Cup game in 1979 to ensure that Somerset’s bowling strike rate – the tie breaker used in that tournament – couldn’t damage their chance of progress. But it was unquestionably from the same crafty playbook.

“The day the tournament disappeared up its own rear end,” was how Engel saw the go-slow in his dispatch. “Some have thought the complexities of the qualification system unfathomable. Yesterday, the Australians fathomed them, and the result was a dreadful and shameful game of cricket.” He concluded, with a typical flourish: “Call it immorality if you like, or call it professionalism, but don’t call it cricket.”

Given it was their opponents who Australia were trying to directly aid, questions of collusion were put to both Waugh and Lara, which they curtly denied. The former’s argument boiled down to you gotta do what you gotta do; the latter was more indignant. New Zealand coach Steve Rixon acknowledged they would have done the same.

John Reid, the match referee, said it was within the rules so there was no censure. As it turned out, Waugh’s plot wasn’t successful, with New Zealand annihilating Scotland the following day in just enough time to render the Old Trafford malarkey futile. But the damage to the sanctity of the format had been done. There was to be a review, the ECB briefed, which Australian media reported would lead to a change for future tournaments.

That this all played out on the same day England were booted out of the competition over in Group A was a coincidence that made the consequences so much worse for the tournament’s reputation and people’s faith in the Super Six process.

***

Hindsight says that it was only appropriate that the full stop on England’s decade was when they were bundled out of their home World Cup at the first hurdle. Attitudes weren’t quite so phlegmatic at the time, though. Especially when, like West Indies, they missed out on the Super Six on NRR. By the time of the final round of games, they had beaten Sri Lanka, Kenya and Zimbabwe as expected, only faltering to the rampaging South Africans. But then, out of nowhere, Hansie Cronje’s men lost to Zimbabwe at Chelmsford.

Suddenly, England’s only route through was beating India at Edgbaston. Instead, they were walloped, finishing with a NRR well inferior to Zimbabwe on the basis of the latter’s marvellous victory against the Proteas. John Etheridge of The Sun captured the finality of it all: “Let’s get things fully in proportion,” he wrote. “This was only the most catastrophic day ever for English cricket.”

On the same afternoon that Australia were attempting to game the system in Manchester, the hosts were packing their bags a mere 16 days into the competition. Making matters worse, newspaper advertisements ran the next morning offering readers the chance to win tickets to all of England’s Super Six matches, of which there would now be none.

“The public backlash was quite severe,” Blake laments. “Not least because there were other elements, such as the World Cup ‘hit’ single which was released the day after we had been eliminated. There was a lot of egg on face, to be honest. At least I felt some on mine. It was a very gloomy moment.”

Sure enough, the Super Six was in the crosshairs of critics as they digested all that had happened over that inglorious weekend. “People used that poor performance by England as a stick to beat the entire tournament with and that was grossly unfair,” Lamb says of the response, which dredged up complaints about the sodden opening ceremony a fortnight prior. “If it pisses down with rain on the morning of the opening ceremony to cancel the most spectacular aspects of the day, that’s bad luck – an act of God,” adds Lamb. “It’s not incompetence by administrators.”

***

Additional damage to the credibility of the Super Six came in the form of a plucky Zimbabwean outfit. Because they had defeated both of the teams they were progressing alongside – South Africa and India – they started the new stage at the top of the table, ahead of teams with better records and better NRR. “Finally the flaws became obvious,” as Engel observed. “It was hard to see the justice of this.”

One final blow was landed when NRR was again called upon to decide the fate of the tied semi-final. The winner was based on positions in the Super Six table – Australia ahead of South Africa, for which the Proteas had their defeat to Zimbabwe to blame. One of the enduring frustrations of this story is that administrators for the World Cup in South Africa four years later did make amendments to limit the influence of NRR. To achieve this, the Super Six included additional carryover points for games won against teams that didn’t progress, reducing significantly the chances of teams being tied at the business end. But once again, the primary host, South Africa, didn’t make it through.

Kenya and Zimbabwe, the two co-hosts, got there instead – helped by a pair of forfeits on security grounds. And with that second messy twist, the Super Six stage ran out of chances and the middle stage was expanded back to eight for the 2007 World Cup – back to where we started.

***

The world kept turning after England’s elimination in 1999. Vast public interest in the event after England’s elimination constituted the World Cup’s greatest achievement according to Wisden, especially the enthusiasm of British Asians.

As Lamb puts it, the organising committee’s objective of inspiring the “new face of cricket” in this country was achieved as a result of this. “There were a hell of a lot of people who didn’t support England as their No.1 team who had an absolute ball.”

On the field, plenty of memorable cricket took place, including a rare contest between India and Pakistan that played out peacefully despite the fact that the nations were at war over Kashmir. As for Australia, their journalists were reportedly exploring options of an early flight home until Herschelle Gibbs dropped Steve Waugh – and the World Cup. The rematch in the semi-final has been voted the greatest one-day international ever played. Twenty years on, that’s what 1999 is really remembered for.

***

After the 2007 debacle, the decision was taken to go back in time to 1996 and include quarter-finals for the 2011 tournament, a formula used in 2015 as well. On both occasions, the only life given to group stages came courtesy of games featuring Associate nations scrapping to find a way through – typically Ireland, who have the World Cup’s expansion to thank for their rapid graduation to the ICC’s top table. And England’s failure.

Now the Associates are all but banished from the 2019 ten-team event – indeed, Full Members Zimbabwe and Ireland are missing out altogether. It sharpens the focus to an era when the approach was very different. “The ICC invested all that money, time and effort encouraging the development of the lesser nations and then slammed the door in their face when it came to the World Cup,” argues Lamb, who served on the ICC’s development committee when he was ECB boss. “It is a terrible shame. This was the whole point.”

The ICC board’s decision is as baffling today as it was when it was made. Don’t forget, based on their own empirical research on the 2015 tournament, the gap between Full and Associate Members is narrower than ever, so the fig leaf given by the powerful handful – that a ten-team World Cup is the result of a lack of competitiveness – is just that.

There is no doubt that the Super Six, in its 1999 incarnation, was well short of perfect. But what it did was help open up the World Cup. It might be a fantasy to believe the ICC could backflip before 2023. But if they did, it would be an ideal place to start in developing the next Ireland without running the risks of 2007.

In crude terms, India would be guaranteed at least six games, and nine if they made the cut – the same number they will participate in at the 2019 tournament. The net result: six games more than the 48 this year in order to include four more teams. Not a bad deal. And a format that could marry both short-term commercial pragmatism with enlightened expansionism.

If only.


This piece first appeared in Issue 26 of The Nightwatchman. Subscribe or buy single issues here

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