Why does the ICC keep tinkering with the format of the World Cup with every edition? They have done so right from the first one in 1975 to the current one in 2011.
1975-87: Groups and semis work just fine.
In the first four editions, eight teams were divided into two groups. The top four made it to the semis. In 1975, since there were only six Test teams, two non-Test playing nations were also included. Newcomers India and Pakistan did not make the semis.
It was pretty competitive from the beginning to the end. In 1979, India, Australia and Sri Lanka failed to make it to the last four stage. In 1983 Australia didn't make the cut. In 1987 the West Indies found themselves out of the semis.
No-one had any problems with this system.
1992: The best of all: Everyone plays everyone.
The 1992 WC threw up a complication. South Africa returned to international cricket and Zimbabwe was on the verge of getting Test status. So there were 9 teams: Awkward for two groups.
The ICC made everyone play everyone and the best four went to the semis. This was probably the best format and a true test of character. Every match was a biggie and this one was a fan's delight. There was drama right from the beginning to the end.
It gave a chance for slow starters like Pakistan who won just one of their first five matches. They stormed into the semis by winning three in a row after that and eventually won the tournament.
1996: The worst of all: A meaningless group stage.
In the 1996 edition the ICC decided to expand horizons a bit and include 12 teams. Fair enough. There were now two groups of 6 teams. But instead of sending over 4 or 6 teams to the knockout phase, they decided to send 8 teams.
Now if you have 8 strong teams and 4 weak teams and send only 8 teams forward, then you donât have to be a genius to work out who goes forward.
So we had the worst group stage ever. There were absolutely no surprises. Zimbabwe, Kenya, UAE and Netherlands were eliminated and the top 8 Test playing nations made it to the quarters. You could have had the quarters straight away!
Kenya beating the Windies by 73 runs made absolutely no ripples in the points tally.
We had 30 meaningless matches and 7 knockout ones. Not an ideal showcase for cricket's premier tournament.
1999-2003: Super Sixes, a middle ground.
In the 1999 and 2003 editions, the ICC came out with a Super Sixes system which was pretty decent if you want to play 12-14 teams. While the Top 4 for the semis were too chancy and the Top 8 for the quarters too easy, the Super Sixes was a nice balance.
While this worked in the 1999 edition, there was a problem in 2003. South Africa, Pakistan, England and West Indies failed to make it to the Super Sixes, while Kenya and Zimbabwe did! Now that is definitely not good for TRP ratings and sponsor satisfaction.
So another change was in the offing.
2007: Knockout roulette knocks out India and Pak.
For 2007, the ICC decided to do something more bizarre. Since they wanted to play 16 teams, there were four groups with a format designed such that any good team could be knocked out if they had one bad day. That is exactly what happened.
India got kicked out by Bangladesh in the first round while Ireland knocked out Pakistan. The two former world champions could not even make it to the Super 8.
The result was a very long and boring tournament which all the players and experts lambasted. 1996 had been bottomed.
Another change was in the offing.
2011: Getting back to the 1996 debacle.
But the ICC never learns. For 2011, it has reverted to the 1996 format. There are two groups of 7 teams. Each group has four strong teams and three weak teams with the top 4 teams going straight to the quarters.
So will we again have a meaningless group stage if all the Top 8 teams happen to enter the quarter-finals?
On the other hand, if there are too many upsets, the ICC will press the panic button yet again.
There's just no winning with some organizations!
The FIFA World Cup has 32 teams and the excitement begins from Match 1.
The ICC on the other hand is struggling to manage anywhere near half of that!
(The author is a Bangalore-based journalist and blogger)