Cup competition to test public's attention span

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A GHOST of a smile played about Mike Atherton's lips as he answered the charge that the rules for this year's World Cup were overly complicated and contrary to natural sporting justice.

Speaking on Carlton TV's The Sports Show, he defended the organisers' decision to allow teams to carry points forward from their opening matches into the second qualifying round on the basis that this rewarded countries playing consistently well from the start.

Whether Atherton actually believes in the wisdom of this was unclear. His true feelings often appeared to be disguised behind an air of faintly ironic detachment, developed, no doubt, by facing years of leading questions from cunning media types. "Oh, so you're asking me that one, are you? Well, you know the answer to that one." Sideways grin, forward defensive stroke. So when the former England captain said he wouldn't quibble too much with the selectors' choice of squad for the World Cup, he managed to imply at the same time that it was at least questionable, if not down right misguided.

To return, however, to the event which got under way at Lord's yesterday. I can quite understand why the thing has to begin with mini-leagues. Many of those present, players and supporters, have travelled a long way for this competition, and to be sent straight back to Kenya or Bangladesh after one outing would be too cruel, not to mention expensive. But then for teams to lug their points onwards to another tier of round-robin games, what kind of petty-minded accounting is that?

Atherton maintained that this system would prevent teams from breezing through the opening stages, safe in the knowledge that they could reserve their main efforts for more meaningful contests later in the competition. No doubt the concept of value for money weighed heavily in the deliberations. But why shouldn't teams be allowed to pace themselves in a major competition? What would we be faced with if the principles adopted in this gargantuan exercise were extended to other sports?

Seb Coe toes the line in the Olympic 1500 metres final and goes on the second gun, giving those who have bust a gut in the heats five seconds' start. Linford Christie settled into his blocks two metres behind the line in the Olympic 100m final, for the same reason. How dare he have come down off his toes 20 metres from the finish? So Seb Coe's double acceleration around the final bend becomes irrelevant; Christie's irresistible surge at 60 metres becomes resistible.

Italy do not win the 1982 World Cup. Inspired victories over Brazil, Poland and West Germany in their last three matches never come to pass because their uninspired record in the opening group matches - played three, drawn three, edging Cameroon out by virtue of scoring one more goal - means they start their second round of qualifiers a goal down on their opponents.

What kind of mentality attempts to reward consistency in a cup competition? The whole essence of a cup is knock-out. The whole beauty of a cup is to see players or teams take fire in the way Italy did in Spain 17 years ago.

When Southampton, then of the Second Division, defeated Tommy Docherty's Cavaliers, AKA Manchester United, in the 1976 FA Cup final, their manager, Lawrie McMenemy, stressed that the result did not simply represent a victory for organisation over flair. He pointed to Southampton's own flamboyant operators such as Peter Osgood and Mick Channon. But it was, nevertheless, a staggering defeat for United - who in their turn inflicted a staggering FA Cup final defeat on Liverpool a year later with a winning goal from Lou Macari which spun off his team-mate Jimmy Greenhoff's shoulder.

"You can disregard the FA Cup as a guide to good teams," Macari commented afterwards. He may be right. But the whole point of the competition is not to identify good teams, it is to find a winner. And whether teams triumph through deflected shots, freak conditions or seemingly impossible saves, it is all part of the essential excitement. Whether teams scrape through to the final after being taken to replays by the likes of Hereford United or Woking is immaterial.

As far as this year's Cricket World Cup goes, any sudden flares of inspiration are in danger of being stifled by the fire blanket of the rules. But then this isn't a proper cup. It's a league which finishes with a few play- offs. And by extending the whole shooting match to a duration of six weeks - twice the length of the football World Cup - the ICC is surely in danger of testing the public's attention span beyond its limits.