Cricket: Super Six format delivers three of the best

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHILE WAITING for yesterday's match to catch fire I did a bit of clearing out and came across a cutting from three years ago about the draw for this World Cup. It contained two pieces of information that have been widely forgotten. First, England were seeded eighth, which means that by eventually finishing fourth in their group they fully lived down to expectations.

Secondly, the format for the tournament was not devised in one go. The International Cricket Conference announced that there would be a new format, and that the top three from each group would go through to a second round- robin in which they would meet the top three from the other group. But "details such as a points system," the story went on, "have yet to be worked out." The words "Super Six" were not mentioned. Nor was the notion of carrying points through.

Now the Super Six is over. It finally justified its name this weekend with two contests that were riveting. But a couple of cliffhangers do not necessarily make a good format. Did the Super Six justify its existence?

It was interesting, and original (not a property with which cricket is overly endowed). It ensured that any team reaching the final stages would have to have met all the other good teams. It rewarded consistency. It gave the tournament about the right number of matches (42) and a satisfying shape - a drama in three acts. It allowed fans taking a week off work to see a lot of high-class cricket in a short time (they were going to all nine Super Six matches). And by the skin of Steve Waugh's gritted teeth, it has now delivered the three outstanding teams of the tournament - South Africa, Australia and Pakistan - into the last four.

But there has been a clear downside. Formats should be simple; this one took more explaining than the European elections. And while any system is bound to contain an element of luck, it should not be wilfully arbitrary, as this one was in the way that it attached extra significance to matches after they had happened. India lost to Zimbabwe, by the narrowest of margins, and beat Sri Lanka by a vast one.

You can see what the organisers were trying to do. They were attempting a compromise between the formats for the two previous World Cups. In 1992, all played all, which was logistically possible because there were no minnows, and the top four went through to the semis. It was fair - although Pakistan squeezed through only because the rain saved them from a certain thrashing by England - but it lacked drama. In 1996 there were 12 teams, as now, in two groups of six, and the top four went through to the quarter- finals. This produced the absurdity of England, who had beaten only the two minnows in their group, proceeding to the last eight. Luckily, they then got their just deserts - a walloping from Sri Lanka.

The Super Six appeared to introduce greater fairness, without flattening the tournament into an all-play-all. The idea of carrying your results was probably designed to ensure that minnow matches had no lasting significance. But when the bathwater was thrown out, so were bits of the baby. Some big matches - Australia v West Indies, South Africa v England - were wiped off the slate.

A further problem is that run rate has been too influential. A one-day truism is that any Test team can beat any other on their day. But the corollary is that several teams can have the same number of wins. Six teams ended the group stage with the same basic record. And the Super Six top three have finished level on points.

I can't think of a better way to separate teams at the group stage than run rate; however, there is an alternative at the Super Six stage. You could decide the semi-finalists by Super Six performance only, unless they finished level, in which case the tie-break would be their record against other Test teams in the tournament.

Thus Australia would have come top, with three wins out of three; South Africa clear second, with two out of three; New Zealand third; and Pakistan fourth, ahead of India, because they have four wins out of six against Test teams whereas India have three out of seven. (But India would still have been in when they went into their last match, and might therefore have won it). Zimbabwe would have come last.

Tim de Lisle is the editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly