This post is inspired by Russell Degnan's 'Potential World Cup Formats' post on his wonderful blog Idle Summers. He argues a strong case for a 20-team World Cup based on 4 groups of 5 teams each, and lists the merits and demerits of such a format.
There is one demerit though, in his 20-team format, (which I loved, but am sure that the ICC will not for the very reason I will now elaborate), that gains in significance with the recent ICC decision of a 10-team World Cup. The ICC wants to ensure as many matches as possible featuring the big teams like India, Australia, South Africa, Pakistan and England (in terms of revenue generation). In that format, these teams can assuredly play only 4 matches, before entering the knockouts. In ICC's view, that would be regressive from the 2011 format. That is why there is a proposal to go for a 10-team round robin format in 2015.
Using a bit of inspiration from Russell's idea for groups of 5, I came up with an idea for a 15-team World Cup, where the teams are divided in 3 Groups of 5 each. Using the current ODI rankings, I have divided the three groups as such:
Now, the first round will be the Group Stages (Round Robin), where 10 games will be played in each group, and 30 games overall. Each team will play 4 matches. The top-3 in each group shall qualify for the next round. Why 3? This ensures a very low chance of a top-ranked team missing out on the next round, even if they suffer an upset in this stage. When Pakistan lost to Ireland in 2007, they exited in the first round itself because they had also lost to West Indies in their group earlier. In this scenario, if Pakistan were to lose to Ireland, but all the other matches give expected results, both these teams shall be tied on 4 points each, along with Bangladesh (assuming 2 points for a win). This will bring the NRR into play, which means that despite the upset, Pakistan will stand a chance to enter the next round.
The second round will be Super Nines, where each team will play 4 matches, resulting in a total of 18 matches. Who will play whom in these 4 matches? Here it is: A1 will play B2, B3, C2, C3; A2 will play B1, B3, C1, C3; etc. The following box will give a clearer picture:
The idea here is to ensure an easier round for those teams that finished 1st in their respective groups, and a tougher round for those that finished 3rd. Additionally, the teams that finished 1st in their groups will start this round with 4 points each, those that finished 2nd will start with 2 points each, and those that came 3rd will start at Nil.
This ensures that in the First Stage of Group Round Robin, there is every incentive for a team to finish at as high a rank as possible. Yet, if a 3rd ranked team wants to qualify for the next round after Super Nines, they can do so by winning all 4 of their matches in this round. In fact, it is possible for them to proceed even with 3 wins out of 4 (with some help from others).
With points set as 4, 2, 0 for 1st, 2nd, 3rd ranked teams respectively, this ensures that there will not be a scenario like that of Kenya in 2003. Kenya had finished 3rd in their Group in that World Cup, yet they carried more points into the Super Sixes than the 1st and 2nd ranked teams, because they had beaten Sri Lanka (1st), and New Zealand (2nd) had forfeited their match due to security reasons. This enabled Kenya to get a head start in the Super Sixes that they did not deserve based on their Group ranking, and therefore, with one win over Zimbabwe in the Super Sixes, they managed qualification for the semi-finals.
This ensures that each team that qualifies for this round is guaranteed to play 8 matches each. Since all the big teams in terms of revenue generation are expected to qualify for this round, there should not be a problem in terms of advertising and broadcasting contracts.
The top-4 teams in Super Nines shall qualify for the Playoffs in the same format as being used in IPL 2011. The following figure illustrates it:
This again gives an incentive for each team in the Super Nines to finish at as high as rank as possible. Both the rounds (i.e. Group Stages and Super Nines) will become more competitive with extra focus on the teams' rankings.
In this format, one finalist will play 10 matches and the other one will play 11 matches. In 2011, the two finalists played 9 matches each. In the 10-team format for 2015, the two finalists will play 11 matches each. This 15-team format will contain 52 matches (30 in Group Stages, 18 in Super Nines, 3 in Playoffs and 1 Finals). This ensures that the broadcasters will be satisfied as well.
Now, lets see how long will the 52-game 15-team World Cup last. The Group stages of 30 matches can be completed in 15 days, with 2 matches on each day. However, if the big matches (i.e. matches between Seed 1 and Seed 2 in each group) are to be held singly on certain days, this stage can last up to 18 days.
The Super Nines stage has 18 matches, that should be completed in 9 days if 2 matches are played each day. However, if these matches, viz. A1 v. B2, A1 v. C2, B1 v. A2, B1 v. C2, C1 v. A2, and C1 v. B2 are to be held singly on certain days, this stage will require 12 days to be completed.
For the Playoffs, 3 separate days will be necessary, and 1 day for the Finals. If the itinerary is planned well, there will not be a need to add any rest days in between the Group stages and the Super Nines stage. Despite no gap, each team will assuredly have at least 2 days between successive matches, as is the current practice. A 1-day gap between Super Nines stage and Qualifier 1, another 1-day gap between the Eliminator match and Qualifier 2, and a 2-day gap before the Finals ensure that the tournament shall last no longer than 38 days.
While the length may seem a tad too much, it can be reduced to 5 weeks (i.e. 35 days) by making the Group stages more efficient and finish them off in 15 days. The World Cup will have low number of meaningless games as at each stage, an incentive to finish high has been given to the teams. Add to it the fact that it will allow exposure to 5 Associate nations on the big stage (in this case 4 Associates and 1 Affiliate, since Afghanistan is still an Affiliate Member of the ICC), which is the very purpose for which I thought of this format!