So, what is to be done to salvage what is supposed to be Cricket's premier competition?
Predictably, the ICC's reaction has been to suggest that the competition ditches the Associates - assuming that they create too many boring one-sided games (and that they might accidently eliminate India) and that this is the cure to the length and the tedium that has become the Cricket World Cup. This neglects two things: firstly, the Associates have been extremely entertaining to watch and (apart from Kenya), have each pressed a full-member nation or two (although Canada did capitulate against Australia after their brilliant start); and secondly, if cricket is to expand and survive as anything other than a niche sport, it needs to have more countries playing it. Without anything to strive for, it's likely that the popularity and participation in cricket will plummet in Associate nations.
The implementation of the World Cricket League system of qualification has been one high point in the ICC's administration of the game - especially with stories such as the rapid rise of Afghanistan from Div 7 all the way to Div 1 (and narrowly missing out on World Cup qualification). The league system provides Associate and Affiliate teams a clear system of progression and something to strive for. There is no reason why this same system cannot be applied to the test-playing nations as well. Automatic qualification for the World Cup has made the top nations lazy and dismissive of the Associate and Affiliate teams.
The editor of Cricinfo, Sambit Bal, has suggested that a qualification system be in place for the World Cup by having a qualification round prior to the World Cup:
"Here's how it will work. The ICC is yet to decide how many teams will automatically qualify; this should be set at six. Which would mean four of the bottom-ranked teams among the ten Full Members - using this World Cup as an illustration it would mean New Zealand, West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe - would join the top four among the Associates in a qualifier, the first round of the World Cup. They could probably be split into two groups, with the top two from each group going into the second round - the Top Ten.Although this is a start, it doesn't get around the problems of the Associates not getting enough games against the test-playing nations and automatic qualification making the test-playing nations lazy and dismissive.
This will add to the tournament's length but these first-round matches can be played in a cluster of two or three a day and be finished within a week. It is now routine to play a few practice games before the tournament, and the top six teams can play their practice games concurrently."
Here's how qualification could work:
- At the end of the World Cup the ODI rankings table is updated (rather than in August as it currently is, see the FAQ [PDF] for details)
- The bottom four sides in these rankings are relegated to Div 1. This method of determining the bottom four sides (on current rankings: Zimbabwe, Netherlands, Kenya, Canada) would only be used in the initial phase. Subsequently the teams not qualifying for the World Cup Second Round would be relegated.
- The remaining sides are "qualified sides" which, on current rankings would be: Australia, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, England, Pakistan, New Zealand, West Indies, Bangladesh and Ireland.
- The Div 1 qualifier is played 2 years before the next World Cup to determine the four sides that qualify for the World Cup. This will add four more sides to the "qualified sides"
- During the ensuing four years, each team must play each of the other "qualified sides" at least once, with rankings being determined in the usual manner. This ensures that all of the top associate nations get some game experience against top sides before being thrust into the World Cup. Obviously the full compliment of "qualified sides" wouldn't be known until two years before the World Cup - but all games in the four year cycle would be counted.
- If teams do not play against a particular team then the points are awarded as a forfeit game to the lower ranked side.
- No-result games are counted as a game played against that country, but not counted for rankings (as is currently the case).
- At the end of the four year cycle, these rankings would be used to determine the two-round system outlined above. As stated earlier, the four teams not going through to the second round would be relegated to Div 1.