Champions Trophy: Runt of litter can become best of breed
The mini-World Cup starts in Cardiff next week. Class players point to true trophy for champions
The Champions Trophy is the runt of the ICC litter. Disparaged from its outset as superfluous and simply another in a welter of annual tournaments, it has struggled for dignity.
Its sobriquet of the mini-World Cup damns it with the faintest praise. There have been points so low that it had no right to recover. In Sri Lanka in 2002 it spectacularly failed to live up to its name, attempts at a final on successive days being rained off after one innings so that there was no champion.
Two years later in England it was played in autumnal weather (and why not, it was late September), featured a team from the USA which contradicted the whole ethos of the competition and was barely salvaged by a pulsating final which finished in the dark.
And yet here it is in 2013 for its seventh version, eagerly anticipated and deemed a model of what a knockout cricket tournament should be. Eight teams, unarguably the eight best in the world because they achieved the rankings to say so, will compete in 15 games over 17 days.
It is compact, should be of high quality and will not lose the audience through boredom along the way. How richly ironic that the ICC are considering ditching it. They will decide its fate, and that of any future World Test Championship, later in the month.
The previous three editions of the World Cup, supposedly the acme of the limited-overs game, have all lasted more than six weeks, and there was no need to suffer from attention deficit syndrome to have switched off somewhere in the group stages. It is difficult to resist drawing comparisons between the seventh Champions Trophy and the inaugural World Cup in this country 38 years ago. That also featured eight teams, was done and dusted in 15 June days, ended in a titanic final and marked the coming of age of limited-overs cricket. From the start, any of six teams could have won it. West Indies eventually did.
Given a run of sunny weather – and the long-range forecast unfortunately suggests something more capricious – there are reasons for abundant optimism about the tournament which begins in Cardiff next Thursday. The present regulations for one-day internationals – two new balls, two powerplays, a maximum of four men allowed outside the fielding circle – have yielded more boundaries and more wickets. They have also left room for a combination of the conventional and the unorthodox.
It is said by most generations that things are not like they used to be But the 50-over game is in rude health. Although it is probably time for the tinkering to stop, the crop of players around have developed captivating arrays of fresh skills.
The types of shot on display in the next three weeks would not have occurred to players of 50 years ago; now they are commonplace. Bowlers have had to respond, as they have throughout history, with their own innovations, so we shall have scrambled seams meeting ramp shots almost willy-nilly.
At the root of it, however, there should be eternal verities – the classic extra-cover drive, the ball holding its own to hit the top of off stump. Fielding will reach new heights of athleticism and, especially in close positions early on, it may be crucial. Expect captains to place attacking fields oft forgotten in the shorter game.
Adapting to the conditions quickly will be paramount. Despite a run of warm-up matches this week, many of the players will find the moving ball and the liveliness of the pitches difficult to negotiate.
There is class in abundance. The world's 10 top-ranked limited-overs batsmen are all present, nine of the 10 top-ranked bowlers are playing. The prospect of Chris Gayle, Saeed Ajmal, David Warner, MS Dhoni, Brendon McCullum and Dale Steyn is entrancing.
Picking a winner, which is the main objective at this stage, is a "pin the tail on the donkey" exercise. South Africa and England are joint favourites, based on their all-round skills in the prevailing conditions and because one has home advantage.
Australia, who have won the past two events, and India, the World Cup holders, cannot be easily overlooked, because they have done this kind of thing before. Pakistan could bring their A game; West Indies are capable of the spectacular still, and won the World Twenty20 last year; Sri Lanka often play above themselves; New Zealand are greater than the sum of their parts.
But then there is the downside. South Africa have found ways to cock it up so many times before that it is only possible to wonder how they will do it this time. England have waited so long for a 50-over trophy that never seems to have become a viable notion. They are the only team playing in the event not to have won either the World Cup or the Champions Trophy.
Australia are in a mess after a turbulent Test tour of India which created a schism in the team. India's players, on a recent exclusive diet of IPL Twenty20, have arrived hotfoot from scandal at home. Pakistan could bring their Z game, West Indies are often disjointed, Sri Lanka usually fall at the last, New Zealand's parts are not up to much.
The tournament itself should run smoothly and entertainingly. This country recovered from an indifferent run of staging cricket events in 2009 with the inaugural World Twenty20. It made up amply for the 1999 World Cup, which never fully recovered from a damp squib of an opening ceremony, and the 2004 Champions Trophy, which was a damp squib.
That it is being held at three grounds, The Oval, Edgbaston and Cardiff, means it will not be an endless travelling circus. There will not be a longueur, because there are 12 matches in successive days from the start of the tournament, a gap of a day before the semi-finals and then of two before the final. England can join the club at last.
Champions Trophy: Team-by-team guide
Seeding: 6th. ODI Ranking: 3rd
There exists a genuine feeling that after almost 40 years, England can at last win a major 50-over tournament thanks to home conditions, an incisive bowling attack, orthodoxy blended with innovation and good recent form. Alastair Cook's captaincy will receive its sternest test and his opening partnership with Ian Bell is crucial. Attention will be focused on Joe Root, batting at four but Eoin Morgan's form at five could be decisive.
Seeding: 1st. ODI Ranking: 2nd
An unfamiliar squad looks to lack top quality but they defeated West Indies 5-0 at home in their last outing. Since then there have been issues of insubordination in the ranks and no real sense that it has been patched up. Sluggers such as David Warner and Phil Hughes can transform matches. Seven of their squad have played fewer than 20 ODIs so the experience of captain Michael Clarke and Shane Watson will be vital in their attempt to retain the title.
Seeding: 7th. ODI Ranking: 8th
They frequently punch above their weight in ICC competitions and reached the final of this tournament last time. The shorter form of the game seems to make them feel alive again. Greater than the sum of their parts, the explosive attributes of Brendon McCullum as well as his willingness to gamble as a captain will still be important. Their seam bowling looks smart and capable of surprising a few. Watch out for the relative newcomer Mitchell McClenaghan.
Seeding: 4th. ODI Ranking: 5th
While they can never be discarded because this is the form of the game at which they usually excel, they are unlikely to be entirely comfortable in their surroundings. Angelo Mathews is still bedding in as captain and although Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekera are likely to be a handful, they seem to have gone backwards lately. They will need runs from their old troopers, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan.
Seeding: 2nd. ODI Ranking: 1st
In the charismatic MS Dhoni they have a captain and leader who can make anything possible at any time in the game. Their squad, no longer with Sachin Tendulkar (retired) or Gautam Gambhir (dropped), still reveals high quality. Bhuvneshwar Kumar's swing bowling may prosper in English conditions, Ravindra Jadeja is Dhoni's nominee as the key figure. The scandals of the Indian Premier League and the team's lack of recent 50-over cricket may conspire against them.
Seeding: 5th. ODI Ranking: 6th
The perennial enigmas. Last winter they won in India, pushed South Africa all the way and have just made a meal of beating Ireland. Under Misbah-ul-Haq they have been given a stability which has so often been lacking. There is plenty of experience and although their bowling does not appear to have all its usual potency, the threat of Saeed Ajmal will not be easily dispelled. Their tie with India in Edgbaston next week is, as usual, mouth-watering.
Seeding: 3rd. ODI Ranking: 4th
Officially ranked as the No 1 Test side by a distance, they are only slightly less potent as a one-day unit, though invariably managing to choke in the big events. Their captain, AB De Villiers and Hashim Amla, are the top-two ODI batsmen, they have a platoon of stylish big hitters and an array of incisive fast bowlers. Their imminently departing coach, Gary Kirsten, has instilled a new belief. But precedent suggests they will muck it up as the tournament enters its second week.
Seeding: 8th. ODI Ranking: 7th
The spinner Sunil Narine may not be quite the mystery he was when he broke on to the scene, but he took more ODI wickets than anybody else last year and is at the top of the ICC rankings. It is inevitable that Chris Gayle will lay waste to at least one opposition attack. They won last year's World Twenty20, they won this Trophy the last time it was held in England in 2004. Dwayne Bravo is an exciting new captain. But emerging from this group looks tough.
Champions Trophy fixtures
Thurs 6 June Group B: India v South Africa, Cardiff, 10.30am
Fri 7 June Group B: Pakistan v West Indies, The Oval, 10.30am
Sat 8 June Group A: England v Australia, Edgbaston, 10.30am
Sun 9 June Group A: New Zealand v Sri Lanka, Cardiff, 10.30am
Mon 10 June Group B: Pakistan v South Africa, Edgbaston, 1pm
Tues 11 June Group B: India v West Indies, The Oval, 10.30am
Wed 12 June Group A: Australia v New Zealand, Edgbaston, 10.30am
Thurs 13 June Group A: England v Sri Lanka, The Oval, 1pm
Fri 14 June Group B: South Africa v West Indies, Cardiff 10.30am
Sat 15 June Group B: India v Pakistan, Edgbaston, 10.30am
Sun 16 June Group A: England v New Zealand, Cardiff, 10.30am
Mon 17 June Group A: Australia v Sri Lanka, The Oval 1pm
Wed 19 June First semi-final: The Oval, 10.30am
Thurs 20 June Second semi-final: Cardiff, 10.30am
Sun 23 June Final: Edgbaston, 10.30am
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