Too many loopholes in the Cup format

On February 8, the day the eighth cricket World Cup was inaugurated, if you had ventured to predict that Kenya and Zimbabwe would play in the Super Sixes and that the second favourite for the Cup, South Africa, as well as the former champions West Indies and Pakistan — not to speak of the three-time finalist England — would not figure in the elite six-team league, few would have taken your word seriously.

On February 8, the day the eighth cricket World Cup was inaugurated, if you had ventured to predict that Kenya and Zimbabwe would play in the Super Sixes and that the second favourite for the Cup, South Africa, as well as the former champions West Indies and Pakistan — not to speak of the three-time finalist England — would not figure in the elite six-team league, few would have taken your word seriously.

Yet, as the longest World Cup in history moved to the second phase, it did so with Zimbabwe and Kenya still very much alive and, what is more, the latter in with a chance of making the last four without recording a single win in the Super Sixes. And what did Kenya do to deserve all this? It picked up four points when New Zealand decided not to travel to Nairobi and then, in the only real major upset of the first phase, beat the Sri Lankans.

As for Zimbabwe, it qualified last, thanks to showers in Harare. If the main host of the competition, South Africa, lost out because of rain, then the co-host made it through to the Super Six when rain forced the abandonment for the match against Pakistan — which also meant that Pakistan, which had a slim chance of qualifying, and England, which was hoping that Pakistan would beat Zimbabwe and let it (England) through, were out of the World Cup.

While it is always heart-warming to see the minor league teams do well on the big stage, the composition of the Super Six this time has drawn a lot of criticism from all quarters. This is because, the reason why Zimbabwe and Kenya made it there had to do with the free points they got when England refused to go to Zimbabwe and New Zealand chose to stay away from Kenya.

Not surprisingly, commentators and former players and critics in the media have hit out at the World Cup bosses for diluting the premier event in the limited overs game because the format has allowed a pair of minnows to make it to the elite group at the cost of higher ranked teams such as South Africa, West Indies, Pakistan and England.

Then again, it must be said that South Africa's plight is of its own making. It played poor cricket against every ranked side that it faced in the competition. From the moment Brian Lara stroked a brilliant hundred in the Cup opener, Shaun Pollock's highly rated men never looked the part. Finally, they might have lost a chance to make it to the Super Six because of a miscalculation of the target (by a solitary run, that too) against Sri Lanka. But it would have never come to that had South Africa played to its potential from the start.

Pakistan, too, played poor cricket and England lost simply because of its adamant attitude towards playing in Zimbabwe. Otherwise Nasser Hussain's men were pretty good as they outclassed Pakistan and then ran Australia close. The biggest loser was West Indies, which ran into rough weather, literally, against Bangladesh, had to share points, and then found itself in a corner.

But, then, even in the case of West Indies, the team's inconsistency could perhaps be attributed to strange selection logic which kept two of the most gifted players in the side — Marlon Samuels and Jermaine Lawson — out of the playing eleven in the crucial matches. But the time the team management woke up, it was too late.

However, overall, the format of the preliminary league and the absence of reserve days do allow the minnows to get their noses ahead of the heavyweights. In the end, this means the competition ends up with a Super Six that has nothing "super" about it, as in the present scenario.

An outsider making it to the business end of the competition may not entirely be a bad thing in most sports, especially ones like football and tennis and golf which had a lot of depth and are truly international sports. But cricket has always lacked strength in depth and, no matter what men like Jagmohan Dalmiya and a few others want to "popularise" the sport by adding to the numbers might have to say, the game has only eight teams that can produce some sort of quality — Australia, West Indies, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, England and South Africa.

Merely because the sport has a huge following in the sub-continent and TV revenues fill the coffers of the organisers, it is ridiculous to bring 14 teams into the World Cup and run the competition for a good part of two months. Perhaps the best format the World Cup had was in 1992 in Australia when the nine Test playing nations played each other in a single league and the top four squared off in the semifinals.

Once this event is over, the men who run the game would do well to sit together and seriously think about the loopholes so that they can be plugged by the time the next edition gets going in the West Indies four years from now.