Is this question even still relevant? Of course they should. Some of the best games in this world cup have been between associate nations, Ireland’s win over the UAE and Afghanistan’s victory against Scotland being the key examples. Exciting finishes aside, however, lets look into the cases for and against.
First, the case against, what’s the reason we’re even asking the question? The ICC proposed before this year’s World Cup began that the next tournament, to be staged in 2019, should be cut from 14 to 10 teams. This cut would presumably come at the expense of the “associate”, non test-playing, nations.
The reason behind this proposal was the desire to shorten the tournament from it’s frankly epic 6-week run time. This is sorely needed, interest in the tournament has far too long to be sustained throughout, and momentum from good games or outstanding performances is quickly lost with only one game per day. Both these problems can be solved in other ways, however, the tournament could be over within a month if two group games were played per day, even if the knockout stages remained the same. This would allow the close contests we’ve seen throughout the group stages to occur closer together, giving the tournament a real sense of excitement.
Supporters of this proposal also express a desire to see the World Cup as the pinnacle of the game, with only the best nations present. During the 2015 World Cup we’ve seen West Indies fall to a record defeat to South Africa, and England embarrassed by 3 other test playing nations. We’ve also seen associate nation Afghanistan give Sri Lanka quite a scare, and perennial upset threats Ireland unbeaten after 2 games. The Champions Trophy already features exclusively test playing nations, so surely another measure of “the pinnacle of the game” is required?
In support of the associate nations, people will point to the entertaining matches, both between these countries, and against the bigger teams. This is of course a fine reason to include smaller teams, however the recent New Zealand – Australia game was a low scoring classic, and one of the best World Cup games of all time. Similarly, we’ve seen exciting contests in the Champions Trophy that does not (currently) feature non test-playing nations.
In my mind, the best reason to include smaller nations with less of a cricketing heritage is exactly because these nations are smaller, and without that tradition. The aim of a governing body like the ICC should be to expand the reach of their game to as many people and countries as possible. How does reducing the opportunity for smaller nations to play in the sport’s biggest competition encourage more people to play the game? Playing against top level competition is generally accepted as one of the ways to improve, and so allowing the most possible opportunity to do this has to be in the best interests of the game as a whole.
So what would I like to see happen? If the proposal is put into action, then I hope it is implemented in such a way as to give associate nations the best possible chance of qualifying still. Perhaps the top 4 ranked teams would qualify automatically, this year that would be Australia, India, South Africa and Sri Lanka. That would leave 6 places for the remaining 6 test playing nations, or various associate qualifiers. Perhaps the each of the top 6 associate nations could play a 1 or 3 game series against a bottom 6 test-playing nation, with the series winner qualify for the World Cup.
But my own counter-proposal would be a combination of my feelings above. Allow the game to grow by leaving the field at 14 teams, but improve the watchability of the tournament by changing the group stage to two matches per day, one from each of the two groups of 7. One of these matches can be a day/night game, and the other a pure day game, as is likely to be required by television. I would keep the 2 day break between each of the knockout rounds, but remove the day’s gap between the semi-finals. This would compress the 42 day tournament down to 33 days, and keep the interest and excitement levels high throughout.
What do you think the ICC should do with the World Cup? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @ASportsMatter.