| 5.6°C Dublin

Hard slog on cards for World Cup contenders

With 34 days to go before the start of the tenth cricket World Cup, no country is enjoying exactly the right form of preparation, so the tournament is as open as could be. England, although they have never won the World Cup, have roughly as much chance as two of the hosts, India and Sri Lanka, along with Australia and South Africa.

Hard competition in similar conditions constitutes the right form of preparation -- and no country is engaged in that now. All the action is taking place in the southern hemisphere on very different pitches, as Australia meet England and South Africa meet India in 50-over cricket, while New Zealand and Pakistan will switch to one-day internationals after their current Test match.

But the sad thing is that there is absolutely no point in being fully prepared for the start of this World Cup. There is a week of warm-up matches for each of the 14 countries before the competition, then comes another month of warm-ups in the form of the qualifying rounds.

The World Cup, in effect, does not start on February 19 with the inaugural match between Bangladesh and India. It starts on March 23 when the quarter-finals commence: and the winners will be the team that conserves its energy for the first month and caters for the eventualities when the World Cup springs into life with the knockout stages which are crammed into the last 11 days.

It is incredible such a tedious schedule has been devised. If you thought the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies was grim, it was a rollercoaster of thrills by comparison with the forthcoming one. At least the last tournament began with India and Pakistan being knocked out, before the weeks of 'Super Eight' tedium set in.

This time the number of countries has been reduced, from 16 to 14, and so has the fun. Nothing can happen in Group A of any interest in more than a month of matches. Which four countries are going to qualify from Group A, folks: Australia, Pakistan, New Zealand and Sri Lanka? Surely not. There was I thinking Canada, Kenya and Zimbabwe were shoo-ins.

The only issue of any note in the first month will be whether Bangladesh can squeeze into the quarter-finals as one of the four qualifiers from Group B, also home to Ireland. West Indies look vulnerable, England, India and South Africa do not.

Bangladesh might therefore squeeze into the quarter-finals at the expense of the Windies as they have the impetus of home advantage, slow turners for pitches, loads of push-it-through spinners, and the confidence of recently having won a proper ODI series for the first time, against New Zealand. But seeing whether Bangladesh can qualify is hardly going to make viewers hang on to their seat belts for four weeks.

Why does it have to be like this? Human greed: the usual answer. The eight-year broadcasting deal signed by the ICC specifies two World Cups of 51 matches -- and that deal brings a lot of dosh, some of which does a lot of good. But, if you are going to have that many games, it is almost unavoidable that some of them are going to be titanic mismatches.

Given 14 countries, the best format for this tournament could have been easily designed: two qualifying groups of seven teams, with the top two from each group contesting semi-finals.

That way every qualifying match would have been significant, with dog-eats-dog intensity at least at the outset. Even Australia v Canada would have been mildly interesting in a ghoulish sort of way, if the difference between two teams finishing the group stage on the same number of points was decided on overall run-rate: then it would have been important to mash up the minnows by a big margin. But no: the Asian organisers wanted to stage 51 matches, not 47.

A cricket match is not meant to be a contest between bat and ball but a commercial, marketing and advertising opportunity. So quarter-finals have been introduced, and the qualifying stage rendered almost meaningless.

It is conceivable that yet another tedious World Cup, the third in a row, will arouse widespread criticism of 50-over cricket, and even lead to its abolition, when actually the format itself is not at fault. Those who organise long-winded competitions, filled with mismatches and nothing hinging on most of the results, will be to blame. Telegraph

Sunday Indo Sport