Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cricket World Cup

On Saturday, the quadrennial Cricket World Cup gets under way in India, and its format seems fair and straightforward. Only if you dig a little deeper do you realize how terrible it is.

Fourteen teams are divided into two groups, and play the other teams in the group once each. The top four from each group advance into a single-elimination knockout.
What could be wrong with this system? The same kind of format is used in numerous competitions in many sports, including nearly every Olympic team event.

To answer that, let's look at the odds of each team to win the event.

Group A
Sri Lanka 5-1
Australia 6-1
Pakistan 9-1
New Zealand 25-1
Zimbabwe 600-1
Kenya 1,000-1
Canada 1,000-1

Group B
India 3-1
South Africa 6-1
England 9-1
West Indies 25-1
Bangladesh 50-1
Ireland 1,000-1
Netherlands 1,000-1

Do you see it yet? That's right: Eight teams make the knockout round, and there are only nine teams in the tournament that are any good. They are going to play 42 games over the course of an entire month, basically just to see whether the West Indies or Bangladesh advances from Group B.

While teams like Zimbabwe and Ireland have a small chance to pull off a one-game upset over a big side, they have virtually no chance at all to go 3-3 and sneak into the top four.

The funny thing is, four years ago the Cup had a much better system that added some uncertainty in the early going. There were 16 teams in the tournament that year, divided into four groups of four, with the top two advancing.
A typical preliminary group included two of the cricket powers and two minnows. This gave a small team a fighting chance: It could beat the other small team in its group and then pull off a single upset to go through. And indeed, two teams did, with Bangladesh upsetting India, and Ireland stunning Pakistan.

The trouble was that all almost the money in cricket comes from the subcontinent, especially India, where cricket is phenomenally popular. (The list of countries in which soccer is not the most popular team sport is short, but India is on it.) With Pakistan and India out after just three games, the organizers faced terrible ratings and the threat of less television money next time around. Thus the new format, which not coincidentally makes it close to impossible for any of the big sides to be eliminated for a month. 

FRB recommends that fans tune out the biggest event in cricket until the quarterfinals begin on March 23. The last three rounds will probably be quite exciting, if the interminable first round hasn't killed everyone's enthusiasm.

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