Animosity assured as England open up against Zimbabwe

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It is encouraging to know that the England and Wales Cricket Board and the game's governing body, the International Cricket Council, have not lost their sense of humour.

During the past 12 months it has only taken the mention of a possible fixture between England and Zimbabwe to bring those involved with organising the contest out in a cold sweat. However, in their wisdom, the ECB and the ICC have decided to kick off this autumn's ICC Champions Trophy in England with a showdown between the two sides on 10 September.

There will be bigger and better contests at Edgbaston, The Oval and Southampton - the three grounds being used - during the 16 days of this 15-match tournament, but it is doubtful there will be a game containing greater animosity.

India and Pakistan are cricket's most volatile rivals but these two nations appear to be patching up their differences. They will provide the tournament with its noisiest day when they meet at Edgbaston on 19 September but before then Pakistan will host a Test series against their neighbours for the first time since December 1989. In this 14-year gap the two sides have played each other in one-day internationals on many occasions - normally at a neutral venue - but in Test cricket only once, in 1998.

While India and Pakistan appear to be coming together, England and Zimbabwe are moving in the other direction. Tension first surfaced when England failed to turn up for their World Cup pool match in Harare 12 months ago. This seemed to have been forgotten during the summer when Zimbabwe toured the United Kingdom but speculation that the ECB will withdraw from November's tour to Zimbabwe has taken the relationship between the two boards to an all-time low.

If England were to pull out of their tour to Zimbabwe for reasons other than safety and security, there is a possibility that the ICC could vote to move September's tournament to another country.

These matters will be decided upon at a meeting of the chairmen of the 10 Test-playing boards in Auckland on 9 and 10 March, when the ECB will be hoping to win support and sympathy for the position it finds itself in regarding Zimbabwe. A failure to gain this and a no-show in November could cost the ECB millions of pounds.

The 12 participating teams - the 10 Test-playing sides, Kenya and the winners of the ICC's Six Nation Challenge in March, whose identity is yet to be confirmed - have been divided into four pools of three with the winners of each going through to the semi-finals and final.

Australia will start as favourites and appear determined to reach the grand final at The Oval on 25 September. "We are keen to improve on our previous performances in this event," said James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia. "We have never won the Champions Trophy, and it and the Border-Gavaskar Trophy are two of the few global trophies we don't have in our cabinet."

Everybody will be hoping that the weather in England, at that late stage of summer, stays fine. If rain interferes and there is a repeat of the 2002 tournament in Sri Lanka, the Champions Trophy may be without a champion for the second time in a row.

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