An giant inflatable replica of the World Cup trophy


The bronze cup

Rather than run a futile race for third, why doesn't cricket simply stage the best event it can?

Simon Barnes

 The cricket World Cup is the third largest sporting event on the planet… and so is every other decent-sized, self-important, self-aggrandising sporting event. Take a look: every big-deal sporting event you care to name claims to be the third largest: behind only the Olympic Games and the men's football World Cup.

Every major sporting competition outside the big two claims to be right up there with the very biggest of all: not quite as big, they say modestly, but breathlessly panting half a pace behind the undisputed champions. The cricket World Cup is among the vast crowd claiming this super-colossal status, knocking the rugby union World Cup into a cocked hat.

All these contenders for the great global bronze medal boast about how many countries will be watching on television - as if everybody in every nation they claim will be agog to see how the Afghan batsmen deal with the doosra, or how Uruguay will manage the set scrum. If someone watches half a minute of sport on a laptop in a bar in Greenland, that's another nation you can claim as audience.

Did you know that 4.2 billion people watched the 2007 rugby union World Cup? That's one of my favourite bits of statistical jugglery. Certainly I'm prepared to believe that everybody in New Zealand tuned in at some point, for New Zealand is the only country in the world in which rugby union is the undisputed number one sport. True, the entire population of New Zealand is less than that of London, but don't let that get in the way of a good boast.

Here's a few other events that claim to be the third biggest sporting event on the planet: the Winter Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games, the World Athletics Championships, the Asian Games, the European Football Championships, the Commonwealth Games, the World Student Games, the Pan-American Games, the Ryder Cup, and the World Aquatic Championships (which has 177 participating nations, so that beats cricket out of sight). The Boat Race in England between two universities claims an audience in 180 countries; the Super Bowl claims 198. What, every single person in every one of those countries discussing the drawbacks of the Middlesex station or getting outraged by outbreaks of unnecessary roughness?

Some claim Formula One is the third biggest, or the football Champions League, or even the football Premier League in England. But if you've been to any of these events - and I've ticked most of them off - you know that after the Olympics and the football World Cup everything else is a village fete.

The World Cup is like one of those towns in westerns. Each building has an impressive façade, but behind it there's just a mean little shack

So right from the start, the cricket World Cup and an awful lot of those other big sporting events are fighting on the wrong front. They shouldn't be trying to be the biggest: they should be trying to be the best. That is to say, trying to produce the best possible sport. Rather than the most advertising revenue.

But that would take a fairly colossal readjustment from the people in charge. We would be asking them to run sport for the benefit of (a) the spectators and (b) the athletes. And everyone knows that such people are at the very bottom of every list of official priorities.

As a result the cricket World Cup is like one of those western towns, the ones Clint Eastwood rides though, looking neither left nor right. Each building has an impressive façade, but behind it there's just a mean little shack. The bar tries to look as if it's the biggest thing this side of Frisco - but once you're inside those swinging doors it's the same little ol' place you shot up in the last town. Architects call it a false front: it's the founding principle of every one of those third-rated global sporting events.

The cricket World Cup has specialised in trying to last as long as possible and to include as many nations as possible, so that it looks as much like the football World Cup as it possibly can. That way it can claim - with self-deluding sincerity - to be the world's third biggest sporting event.

So they have included 14 nations to make it look truly global, though everybody knows that Ireland, Scotland, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates aren't there to win anything much, they are there to make the whole thing look global. Is it really useful - in terms of the development of the sport - to invite teams to an event in which they are mostly going to get clobbered? Roughly speaking, I'd say no, not at all; but the administrators attached to those countries will have a nice time and so will their partners, and that's always a good investment in the horse-trading of votes and favours in international sport.

The no-hopers will play six matches each. The competition begins with two leagues, two groups of seven each. From each group of seven, four will qualify - so it's harder to not qualify than it is to qualify. We'll be expected to get excited about the various computations that will decide who plays whom when the competition gets serious.

So that's, er, 34 matches that have to be played in the cricket World Cup before the sport gets interesting, and that seems kind of a lot. Admittedly, after that it's likely to get very interesting indeed, because then we move to straight knockout. That's if we still care, after four and a half weeks of messing about.

This is a format that aims not to produce the best sport but to provide the most television hours. It's not about how great sport can be, it's about how much money can be made from it. It's not about how good cricketers can be, it's about how powerful sports administrators can be.

The formats that have decided cricket World Cups across the years have been complex, bewildering and various: but they have all been designed to maximise the number of matches. In 1999 and 2003 the top nations after the group stage went into a league called Super Sixes. Each of the six played a bunch of matches in order to whittle the number down to - yes - four teams to contest semis and a final.

The 1996 opening ceremony: is cricket's priority producing a television spectacular or a top-notch sporting event?

The 1996 opening ceremony: is cricket's priority producing a television spectacular or a top-notch sporting event? © Getty Images

In 2007 administrators tried to improve on that by starting off with four groups of four. After that, the top two in each group went on to form a Super Eights league, with each team playing seven matches to produce four teams to play knockout cricket. The life and breath of a cup tournament is straight knockout, and that's what the cricket World Cup should be all about.

Alas, you can't tell sports administrators that they are getting it wrong. They will look at the tournaments of the past and show you some fantastic sport and say: look at that then. We must be doing something right.

But it's the cricketers who are doing something right. If you gather together the best white-ball cricketers on the planet and tell them that this is the tournament of all tournaments, no matter how crass your format you are going to end up with at least some enthralling sport - and the last few matches of the World Cup will be essential viewing for everyone with a taste for the game, even if that may be a few less than four billion.

And that's the common theme with all the great sporting events: the sport is too good for the people who run it. The Olympic Games is as near to an exception as you can find, but they are reintroducing golf as an Olympic sport in Rio, a decision based entirely on money and the American television audience; it all came about before Tiger Woods had reached his hydrant. The football World Cup is run by FIFA, and no organisation that can vote for an event to be held in Qatar in the summer can claim to be a serious sporting organisation with serious sport as its priority.

But the many events that make up the mix for the third-biggest event are remarkable for the way they run sport with sport as the lowest priority. You find the same thing right across the sporting spectrum: in which branding matters far more than sport. (We're supposed to call it "The ICC Cricket World Cup"; who the hell else runs a global sporting event if not the global sporting body?)

So what we're going to get at the cricket World Cup will be four and a half weeks of pretty dull sport, spiced with the occasional upset and the intermittent outbreak of good cricket, followed by a knockout tournament that is likely to be brilliant. I could pick the eight most likely knockout nations right now, and so could everyone else who watches cricket. Here's an idea. Only a suggestion, and pretty revolutionary, but I'd like the ICC to listen, if only for a moment. If you tried to produce the best sporting event in the world you just might end up with the third biggest sporting event in the world. Isn't that worth a try?

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books