There was always the danger that the ICC’s shambolic scheduling for the 2019 World Cup would come back to bite it on the backside.
And as the tournament plays out – slowly – that danger has very much become real. The final two weeks of group games in cricket’s showpiece quadrennial event could, barring upsets that need to happen quick smart, contain a host of meaningless matches.
Bangladesh has to defeat Australia tonight in Nottingham to keep their slight semi-finals hopes alive. Barring that, the top four is likely to remain unmoved – a disastrous result for tournament organisers this early.
Perhaps it’s somewhat strong to described the games as ‘meaningless’. In a pride sense, each team desperately wants to win when playing for their country at an international event.
The games also mean a lot to fans, especially of nations who rarely have a global audience for their fixtures. But in the purely competitive sense of this World Cup and how the ensuing matches will shape the outcome of the tournament, there’s a whole lot of junk time ready to be served up.
And that’s not healthy, not for this nor any tournament. It puts the World Cup in an extended holding pattern before the finals, stagnating where it should be building. It also leaves commentators working overtime to search for narrative that just isn’t there. “The fight to determine places inside the top four” doesn’t have an overly captivating ring to it.
By implementing a single group of ten teams where each side plays each other once, the ICC were well aware of the danger they now find themselves in. They knew that if a group of four teams were to break away, games at the back-end of the tournament would have reduced relevance. And that, barring a host of upsets, is how it will likely play out.
Context, the most important factor in keeping bums on seats and eyes on screens, will be drained.
Take Bangladesh’s dominant chase against the West Indies on Monday. This was (for me) the best game of the World Cup – a stirring chase characterised by the brilliance, yet again, of Shakib Al Hasan.
But it was also brilliant because of its context. That is, it kept Bangladesh in the tournament.
The result was monumental for their outside chance at a semi-finals berth. But when this is gone – which, if beaten tonight against Australia, it will – Shakib’s ton suddenly gets far fewer headlines.
Sure, sporting administrators can’t read the future. No tournament can fully mitigate against encounters later in a tournament that, such is the way results have occurred, essentially don’t mean anything.
What they can do, however, is put in place a tournament structure that – should these games occur – are short-lived and over quickly. What the ICC has done is ensured these games will likely be front-and centre for over a week. This is a monumental blunder.
A better solution, quite obviously, was to have multiple groups. Or essentially, anything but one single group.
In the 2015 World Cup, there were two groups of seven teams. The top four of each group progressed to the quarter-finals, from which it was a knockout.
This made sense, and also allowed the inclusion of the ever-strengthening associate nations whose exclusion this World Cup is the biggest blunder of all.
Finally, the everyone-plays-everyone format (aside from the futile matches it throws up) has also taken away from the excitement of the biggest clashes.
Take Australia versus India for example. Australian fans watching their side get thoroughly beaten at The Oval 11 days ago were disappointed, sure. But the post-mortem was swift, and everyone moved on quickly.
The loss didn’t actually mean much. Australia picked themselves up knowing opportunities for redemption were vast. They even knew they could lose to both India and England and still skip into the top four, no worries.
World Cups in other sports are characterised by the distinct intensity of almost every single game. In the football World Cup, an early stumble leaves any team in immediate danger of being knocked out.
It’s all on the line from day one. But the opposite is true in this World Cup; that is, many matches have lacked real, edge-of-seats, heads-in-hands atmosphere that makes sport great. And in the next fortnight, don’t expect that to change.
At some point, somewhere down the line, we’ll get to the semi-finals.