The Ins and Outs of Potential World Cup Formats
Russell Degnan

Having put forward a case for why a smaller world cup is both unfair and unnecessary, it is worth going through some of the potential options for a larger tournament. I've covered some principles of a good tournament before, and won't repeat them here. Instead I will focus on the specific mechanics of stages.

There ought to be four basic aims in designing a format:

  • You want to minimize luck, such that the best team wins
  • You want to maximize the number of games that are decisive, such that the teams that progress are never clear.
  • You want to minimize the number of mismatches between two teams of different standards.
  • You want to maximize efficiency, so that the tournament is not too long

As can be seen from the diagram of possible formats below, the number of games in any stage increases rapidly with the number of teams in a group (in the sequence 1,3,6,10,15,21,28 etc.). More importantly, because the eventual denouement normally splits two teams, the larger a group is, the greater the gap between the line that separates progress from failure. No matter the group size, it is not unusual to see the top team beat everyone below them, the second those below them, and so on down. This has the perverse result of making only one game decisive: that between the worst team that goes through, and the best team that doesn't. Shorter groups make that problem less obvious, but in any group there is a decisive line between the teams that go through, and the teams that don't, and it is the inequality across that line that ultimately matters.

For this reason, I prefer world cup groups of 3 or 4 teams, with generally two progressing. However 5 is possible in certain circumstances, to be discussed. In a 3 team group, the order of group games needs to be adjusted to keep interest in the third game: if two teams progress, the winner of the first game should play in the second game, the loser the third; if one team is to progress, the loser of the first game should play in the second game, the winner the third. That said, three team groups in the opening stage should generally be avoided however, for two reasons: firstly, the effort required to qualify is made a mockery of if a team is limited to just two games, and secondly, it produces decisive games early in a tournament when the fan generally expects a bit of leniency for poor play.


Four possible proposals are given below, with my personal preference given to the latter formats. The number of days listed is the bare minimum amount, given at least two days break between games for every team; the number in brackets is the number of games in a slightly more relaxed tournament.

16 Team World Cup

GroupsTeamsGamesDays
44249 (12)
24129 (12)
Semis22
Final11
Rest3
Total3924 (30)

This is the personal preference of many, and has great appeal, combining a succinct number of games with a slightly longer second round to maximize the tv potential of the test teams. It's weakness lies in the first round where the line of qualification splits between the strong eight test sides and the weaker test sides/associate teams. While 2007 proved that this doesn't preclude them progressing, it also proved that it can make for some boring games. A 16 team world cup is also too short for broadcasters, rolling in at only 39 games.


24 Team World Cup with Quarters

GroupsTeamsGamesDays
64369 (18)
43129 (12)
Quarters43 (4)
Semis22
Final11
Rest3
Total5528 (40)

24 Team World Cup without Quarters

GroupsTeamsGamesDays
64369 (18)
43129 (12)
Semis22
Final11
Rest3
Total5124 (36)

Slightly messy, as 24 team world cups generally are (the problem is removing the odd prime multiplier), and with a relatively high number of first round mismatches. The 24 team world cup has the advantage, however of splitting between teams ranked 7-12 and teams ranked 13-18, which are generally competitive games. The second round, consisting of three games can split into either quarters (with 4 extra games but again splitting 5-8 vs. 9-12) or semis, where teams would need to win every game to progress.


20 Team World Cup

GroupsTeamsGamesDays
454015 (20)
Round 2843 (4)
Quarters43 (4)
Semis22
Final11
Rest3
Total5127 (34)

A 20 team world cup lies between the 16 and 24 team editions for quality, with a number of mismatches in a longer first round (it effectively adds a poor team to each group of a 16 team world cup). At first glance, that is a bad idea, but a twist makes it substantially more interesting. Instead of moving to quarter finals, incentive can be given for both topping the group, and coming third, giving decisive lines between 1-4 vs 5-8 and 9-12 vs 13-16 (with 17-20 being quite competitive in those games as well. First place is given a bye to the quarter finals, while 2nd and 3rd placed teams play-off in a second round.

This is my preferred format for several reasons: the minnows have a clear target in making the second round, with the added incentive that upsets in the first round could get them into second place and a potentially easier second round game; the major test teams can afford an upset in the first round, as they'll almost all come in the top three; and the game between the top 2 in the group has real spice, as no team would want to play an extra game, even if they are expected to win easily. Finally, its length is reasonable, being only a few days longer than the 16 team edition (though with more games over-lapping) substantially shorter than recent cricket world cups, but still passing the 48 game broadcasting requirement.

Idle Summers 11th October, 2010 08:11:00   [#] 

Comments

The Ins and Outs of Potential World Cup Formats
For the record, the 2007 world cup would have matched up as follows (assuming the 5th team had no effect on the group standings):
Left side:
2nd Round: 1:RSA v Ind, 2:Eng v Pak
Quart: WI v win1, Sri v win2

Right side:
2nd Round: 3:Ban v Ned, 4:Ken v Ire
Quart: NZ v win3, Aus v win4

The exact nature of the upsets made the draw quite uneven, but conversely, created some great match-ups on the LHS.
Russ  11th October, 2010 08:29:12  

The Ins and Outs of Potential World Cup Formats
I quite like the 20-team format too but broadcasters may not like it because there will be a lot of mismatches and low profile contests in the first round. It's a lot more likely to work in football where fans of the weakest sides are very passionate about their team being in the World Cup. Compared to that, how excited would the Kenyans or Argentinians be about their team playing the cricket World Cup and how many people from the traditional cricketing nations watch these sides?

I think the 16-team format might be the best for 50-over matches while the T20 World Cup could have 20 teams. Use the upper limit for the number of days for the former and the lower limit for the latter.
Mahek  11th October, 2010 21:27:50  

The Ins and Outs of Potential World Cup Formats
I'm sure the Kenyans and Argentinians would be much more passionate about the world cup if they are there than if they aren't invited at all. A handful of associate countries seem to have quite reasonable followings (Nepal and Afghanistan for instance) while others come from quite wealthy countries (Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands, Canada, USA) which means they bring something to the table.

For broadcasters, assuming they show 20 of the 40 games (the others over-lapping) they top 12 rated teams would fill 12 days up, leaving 8 as a mixture of massive mismatches or closely fought low profile games. It would still be an improvement on the 2011 format, and the games would be interesting (in the sense that the result mattered).
Russ  13th October, 2010 21:39:34  

The Ins and Outs of Potential World Cup Formats
I think that any format with quarter-finals doesn't do well on the 'minimising luck' criterion (which is in direct conflict with two of the other three).

Like Mahek, I wouldn't mind seeing the 20-team format for a T20 World Cup though - the current World T20 doesn't make any pretence of trying to find the best team, instead just being a few weeks of action-packed matches.
David Barry  14th October, 2010 12:00:23  

The Ins and Outs of Potential World Cup Formats
DB, I know. The direct conflict is what makes it interesting. Perhaps I'm just adjusted to the idea of finals (or perhaps they actually work), but I prefer to minimize luck in the early part of a tournament and increase decisiveness and efficiency in the latter stages.

Who cares anyway, the ICC are going with a 10 team 45 game round-robin in 2015, just like 1992, but loooonger. Is it too much to hope that ODI cricket will have breathed its last by then?
Russ  14th October, 2010 12:31:58