How Large a World Cup
Russell Degnan

While largely ignored by the blogosphere, the changes put forward by the ICC promise to radically alter some aspects of the game even if they don't go far enough in certain key respects.

Most radical of all is the proposal to reduce the world cup to ten teams.while I can see the upside to the death of 50 over odi cricket, the associate teams are rightly upset. The ICC seems to have based its decision on five widely held misconceptions. Each of which was put forward during a disappointing discussion on switch hit.

Firstly, that more teams create a longer world cup. While superficially true in that it is impossible to remove teams faster than one per game - an entropy approaching 2n - no cricket world cup had come even close to having an efficient format. And format is the most important aspect by far. So much so, that if the complete collection of formats with fewer than 64 games are enumerated, the number of teams explains only 18% of the variation in size.

The diagram below allows you to trace the various possible permutations. While it is possible to play a 10 team world cup that is very short - just 23 games - the 2015 World Cup will remain at 48 games (a 1992 resembling 10 team league) because of the existing broadcasting deal. More games in fact, than needed to complete the shortest possible 32 team competition. And only one more than vastly superior 20 and 24 team formats.

Secondly, that a larger world cup has more pointless mismatches. Again, superficially, this is true, because there are more games between disparate teams. But focus on the pointless. What gives a game a point is the need to win. The larger the group at each stage, the more games a team can afford to lose. The mistake of 2007 was the 8 team second stage that included large numbers of pointless games, some of which were mismatched. The first stage, while endowed with mismatches, also eliminated two favourites as a result of upsets.

More importantly, at each stage, the games that matter are those that separate the team that progresses, from one that doesn't. Thus, in a group of 4, the key game is that which separates 2nd from 3rd. In a 16 team world cup then: teams 5-8 from teams 9-12, a separation ill-suited to a competition with 8 teams clearly superior to the rest. For a 24 team world cup: teams 7-12 vs. 13-18, which far from being mismatches are actually quite close.

Thirdly, that there is something inherently wrong with a competition where a team only wins 1 in 10 games against the top opposition. There are two arguments against this: firstly, that inequality is normal. If the best team wins by, on average, 5 runs over the second best team, the second 5 over the third, and so on, then the expected probability of victory declines very quickly as you move down, even though the bottom teams are quite even with each other (and therefore, the over-all tournament quite equal). You can see this by comparing cricket with rugby, in the diagram below, by looking at the percentage of games won against the top 7 sides (in green), and the top 10 sides (in red), by each team. They are so similar, it isn't even worth labeling which two lines refer to cricket.

The second argument refers to specifics of this graph. Football is much more equal - teams win approximately 20% of games against strong competition, but cricket and rugby indicate something else: namely, that the unequal competition structure of each prevents the teams ranked 11 and below from building strength because their players can't adjust to the higher level easily. Thus, the significant win percentage drop from 7th/8th to 9th/10th, when you'd expect a smooth curve.

Fourthly, that cricket doesn't have sufficient depth to stage a larger world cup. A brief comparison to past world cups in other sports based on the ratio of member nations to world cup participants shows how clearly wrong this is. Cricket (in yellow) closely followed the lead of football (in blue) across their first 9 world cups, raising the ration from 2 (8 of 16 teams) to 6 (16 of 90 odd). Yet, while football, with its proper qualification tournament and equitable governing structure increased to 24 teams when they passed 100 members, cricket has gone the opposite, reducing to 14 and then 10, a deplorable ratio of almost 11! Rugby, by contrast, continues to keep their ratio as low as 4, implementing a qualifying tournament, wearing the unequal games, and even staging a world cup in an emerging nation (Japan).

Finally, that the whole purpose of the world cup is to annoint a winner, and therefore that what's best is a very short tournament with few teams that can quickly reach its climax. World cups are more than that, they are celebrations of the sport, and its diversity. Ever since I've been watching them, in any sport, they've represented the one opportunity to see players, teams and styles from obscure places, and watch them strive, not for greater honours, but merely for the next step on a long ladder. World cups shouldn't be as long as previous editions have been, but it has never been the length, it is the comically poor format that creates endless group stages where losing most of your games doesn't result in a ticket home.

A reduction to a 10 team world cup is woefully short-sighted policy from a sport that often deserves to exist as a minor footnote to sporting history far too many people already believe it to be.

Cricket - Articles 4th October, 2010 08:15:02   [#] 


How Large a World Cup
This is exactly what people need to know. The mainstream media aren't telling the full story in regard to the 2015 World Cup. I've posted this article on the facebook page which is fighting the 10 team World Cup proposal. Brilliant work Russell.
Ben Stinga  4th October, 2010 16:55:43  

How Large a World Cup
I really enjoyed going through your analysis. People at cricinfo and others in the media should see your article.
greyblazer  4th October, 2010 17:50:21  

How Large a World Cup
Quite detailed and informative as always. I'm surprised you didn't list the option(s) you feel are best for a World Cup.

Another option you can contemplate is that of reducing the number of matches in a second group stage by carrying points forward from the first group stage.Let's say we have 4 groups of 4 teams each. Two teams from each group make it to the next round but they also go into the same group for that round. For example, teams from Groups A & B form Group F and they play each other but not the ones they've already played. Thus, instead of having 6 games per group we'd only have 4. The head to head from the previous round carries over. This can be done for a 20 or 24 team format as well.
Mahek  5th October, 2010 03:34:19  

How Large a World Cup
Ben, GB, thanks.

Mahek, I've never been a fan of carrying points forward. It can easily lend itself to manipulation (Aus v WI in 1999), and just aesthetically, I like every stage to start afresh, Will write something longer on my preferred formats though.
Russ  5th October, 2010 22:04:49  

How Large a World Cup
Highly detailed analysis which I really enjoyed reading.Good work.

@Mahek-Are you suggesting a format like the super six stage there was in 1999 WC,where depending on the team's position in 1st stage,they would start with different points in second ?
Mayank Jhaveri  9th October, 2010 05:09:52