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Planet Cricket – An unwanted sibling outshines World Cup

Tim Wigmore says Champions Trophy’s slick format puts the bloated World Cup to shame

The scene was a farce. It was September 2002 and the ICC, in all its wisdom, had decided to hold the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka – during monsoon season.

The hosts made the final, where they faced India. Twice Sri Lanka batted for a full 50 overs; twice it rained early in India’s reply. Because of ICC rules at the time – that an ODI match only became official after 25 overs bowled to the side batting second – the game was restarted after the first abandonment; after the second, there was no time to start again.

So 110.4 overs had been bowled in the final – 10 per cent more than a full ODI – yet no match had been completed. Somehow, it seemed a metaphor for this unloved and unwanted tournament, tacked on six months before the World Cup out of little more than commercial obligation.

The Champions Trophy, then, had an identity crisis – what did it stand for? What did it mean? Most basically, who cared?

Now, though, the opposite is true. In a calendar that comprises endless and essentially context-free limited overs international cricket, and ICC events which tinker their format incessantly – the 2019 World Cup will be the eighth different format used by the competition in its last nine events – the Champions Trophy is a welcome exception. It is short – all over in 18 days. It is easily understandable – this is the fourth edition in a row to feature eight teams in two groups of four, with the top two in each pool advancing to the semi-finals. And almost uniquely in modern cricket, it adheres to the basic marketing strategy: leave ’em wanting more.

Perhaps that’s why the Champions Trophy has repeatedly survived. It was first meant to be abolished in 2009, to make space for the World Test Championship; the Test Championship would have generated less cash so the plan was abandoned. The 2013 tournament was meant to be its swansong, finally allowing the creation of a Test Championship – instead the Champions Trophy enjoyed record-breaking success, and the Test Championship was culled again.

Now, the ICC envisages only having one marquee tournament for each format, again placing the Champions Trophy in jeopardy. It is, as baseball legend Yogi Berra said, like deja vu all over again. A prediction is that, once again, the Champions Trophy will succeed; once more its success will preclude it from being cut.

Oddly enough, now the Champions Trophy makes its big brother – the 50-over World Cup – look bad. The Champions Trophy has a clear identity – it is unashamedly elitist, creating a dynamic competition imbued with jeopardy, in which a single defeat can be enough to get eliminated.

In comparison, the World Cup looks gluttonous, entirely dictated by commercial, not cricketing, concerns. The past three tournaments have been bloated and overlong. The 2019 tournament will be the longest yet; 48 games over 47 days. And this with only two teams more than the Champions Trophy. Should a team lose their first three matches, they would be effectively eliminated, and have six dead-rubbers to play.

In the process, the World Cup also threatens to detract from the Champions Trophy – rather than being distinct, the two events will have virtually the same field of teams, with the only difference that the World Cup is so much more drawn-out. Here, cricket should take a lesson from football. The Confederations Cup features eight teams, like the Champions Trophy, giving it a distinct identity to the World Cup, which features 32 – and, from 2026, 48.

Cricket lacks the depth for such a big World Cup, but the point is that a sport should not run two events that feature such a similar array of teams.

Ideally the ICC would act in the spirit of expansionism – the original motivation for launching the Champions Trophy in 1998 – and make the World Cup a 20-team affair spread over four groups of five, with the group winners proceeding to the quarter-finals, and the second and third-placed teams in each pool playing off: this structure would have 11 knockout games, which are the heart of a tournament.

More pragmatically, the sport could revisit the 2015 World Cup format – which, commercially, was the most successful in history, showing a clear appetite for seeing more than the same old teams – but with one crucial tweak.

Rather than the top four in each seven-team group proceeding to the quarter-finals, the top team should proceed to the semi-finals, and the second and third-placed teams should face off in the quarter-finals. Such a format would have meant that New Zealand’s group victory over Australia had clear consequences – rather than being a brilliant match which meant oddly little – and ensure more rested upon the skirmishes in group games.

The Champions Trophy shows that fans want to watch cricket with consequences; the problem is that, at international level, they too rarely get to do so. Later this month, the ICC meet at The Oval for another – yes, another – meeting that looms as critical to the future of the international game.

Let us hope that it is informed by this simple mantra: to ensure an international calendar as easy to understand and full of context as the Champions Trophy.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, June 2 2017

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