ICC Champions Trophy 2013: Decline of Australia leaves tournament wide-open
Teams of equal standard playing in a competition with a snappy format means World Cup's ugly sister is looking beautifully enticing. Stephen Brenkley cannot wait
The seventh Champions Trophy has come up with a novel concept in global sporting competition. It has two groups of death. The top places in the world one-day rankings have changed hands so often recently and the lesser-rated teams are so spectacularly capable if the moon is in the right phase that anything could happen.
It was quite a wizard idea of the International Cricket Council to stage a tournament in which the best eight teams, established by rankings over a long period, should compete in two pools of four – and one which probably has no chance of catching on. The Champions Trophy has a fairly undistinguished past, suffering for being labelled the mini-World Cup and struggling to find its proper place in the scheme of things.
In essence, it owed its survival to the simple truths that, above all, it was a television rights money-spinner and secondly something had to be fitted into the calendar to fulfil the obligation to hold one ICC event a year. But the runt of the litter is now small and perfectly formed.
Eight well-matched sides will play in an event lasting 17 days with 15 matches in all, one each on the first 12 days to be followed by semi-finals and a final. If it goes as well as it could – and the start of the event seems set to be blessed with fine weather – the ICC will probably ditch it. That is certainly high on the agenda of the annual conference that immediately follows the tournament.
There is also an added complication for the ICC and everybody else involved in the game. If the Champions Trophy works, showing one-day cricket at its best, it could have a further debilitating effect on the future of the Test version.
Not on the Ashes, of course, to which all roads lead in this country and Australia. But the gap in standard and application between sides, of which there was clear evidence in the recent series between England and New Zealand, is becoming so wide that audiences are unlikely to be easily enthralled.
More significantly, many countries are clearly unwilling to promote the longer game properly. It remains the pinnacle of the sport but it is also in peril of being killed by neglect. The two Ashes series later this year may have a crucial job which goes beyond an age-old rivalry.
For now and the next 17 days the stage is given over to limited-overs cricket. There will be on show an array of skills and the potential for gripping, high-scoring contests between bat and ball that have their own theatre.
Regulations allowing two new balls from the start have put a spring into bowlers' steps, batsmen have developed shots which were once heretical and are now orthodox. Fielding standards, by and large, have never been higher. The players could help matters along by infusing more drama into those pesky middle overs, the batsmen by playing some shots instead of rotating the strike, the bowlers by trying to take wickets instead of containing.
It is difficult to pick a winner but every tournament needs the hosts to prosper. England are the only one of the eight not to have won the Champions Trophy or the World Cup and they will never have a greater chance to rectify that.
History and now form are against them. The hosts have never won this tournament, only two of them sustained local interest by reaching the final. Until a week ago, England looked eminently worthy of being favourites: familiar conditions, a tried and trusted system, confident players, a new coach brimming with ideas.
Two large defeats in the warm-up series against New Zealand have exposed a soft underbelly: poor reserve bowling, fragile batting equally lacking in nous, and fielding probably suffering because of it. The temptation will be to panic and change everything; it must be resisted.
England need Stuart Broad or Steve Finn fully fit, preferably both, since the attack seems incapable of carrying two understudies. Much of the floundering batting will depend on the opening pair of Alastair Cook and Ian Bell regaining their edge and Eoin Morgan rediscovering his touch. Otherwise the record will stay intact.
Seeking a hat-trick of victories, they instil in their opponents none of the fear of yore. A healthy respect is about the limit now and while the selectors have taken an admirable punt on inexperience they look to be capsizing already.
There is no certainty that the self-inflicted wounds caused when four players were dropped for breaches of discipline on the winter tour of India have been healed. Their last practice match was a disaster.
It is vital their captain, Michael Clarke, scores heavily but he also still has to prove that he can unify this team – and before all that his dodgy back has to recover sufficiently to get him on the park. If he was Ricky Ponting's natural, unopposed successor, then so was Gordon Brown to Tony Blair and look what ensued.
They will miss enormously the great Mike Hussey as well as Ponting. The first match against England this Saturday is hugely significant for all manner of reasons.
They thrive on the shorter forms of the game because those types of matches drive their international cricket at home now. Needs must. In Brendon McCullum they have a wise, innovative leader who will like the options that tighter fielding restrictions and two new balls offer.
As the one-day series against England has proved, they are not here for the ride – although it is possible that they have peaked too soon. The batting looks as though it knows its business and Mitchell McClenaghan seems a real find as a left-arm swing bowler.
In essence, though, they are greater than the sum of their parts without their parts being much to write home about. If they can get their second-most capped player, Daniel Vettori, back on to the field at last then who knows what might happen?
World Cup semi-finalists twice in a row, semi-finalists and finalists in this competition: they know how to play the big tournaments.
Another team who have come to defy convention by regularly reaching the business stages of the big ones. England in early June may not be wholly to their liking. They have grizzled old warriors at their disposal – five in all with more than 100 one-day caps – but the inexperience of the others in these peculiar conditions may eventually be more telling.
How the senior men particularly, three of them former captains, respond to the new captain, Angelo Mathews, only four matches into his tenure will affect their chances. How he leads them will also matter.
One of their enduringly alluring qualities is that they seem to be able to put behind them the constant troubles of their home board, long periods without pay and general turbulence.
They handed England a fearful 5-0 drubbing in a bilateral series here seven years ago but have failed to perform with distinction in major tournaments in this country.
Out of their comfort zone – India, that is – they may not at first glance seem to have much to offer. But MS Dhoni, their formidable captain, is not a man to be taken lightly. Their batsmen will not be daunted by any target and their sterling recovery from 55 for 5 against Australia and the manner in which they then cut a swathe through their opponents' batting illustrates resilience.
The veteran coach, Duncan Fletcher, once of this parish, knows England as well as anybody and will have planned accordingly. The seam bowling does not appear to have much depth but Dhoni has nominated Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 22, with only eight matches behind him, as one who could influence the course of events, and the rangy coalminer's son Umesh Yadav demolished the Aussies.
Although their players have been on a constant diet of Indian Premier League Twenty20 lately they are the World Cup-holders and now top of the ICC one-day rankings.
A side without a home – it is more than four years since they played a one-day international in their own country – should be a side without hope. Somehow they keep going, endlessly on the road, endlessly courting controversy but winning enough to keep the faith. The stability given them by their captain, the estimable veteran Misbah-ul-Haq has been a wonder to behold.
Whether it can take them all the way in this tournament may be doubtful but they will not lack for fervent support with two of their group matches at Edgbaston and the other at The Oval. They could be an absolute joy to watch and have equal potential to be abundantly frustrating.
With seven of their players aged 31 or older, that may have an effect as the tournament goes on. The match against arch rivals India on 15 June is the last in the group for each team and semi-final qualification may easily depend upon it. It is as eagerly anticipated as the Ashes.
The eternal chokers and the more they disdain the appellation the more they choke. AB de Villiers is the latest captain to be entrusted with the job of leading them to the promised land.
South Africa were actually the winners of the inaugural Champions Trophy in Dhaka in 1998 but that was when it was a support event and before it found its feet. No one noticed.
Injuries could undermine their challenge from the start. The most notable is the side strain being nursed by Dale Steyn, but De Villiers also appears to be suffering from an unconfirmed ailment because a replacement has already been nominated.
Skilful, experienced, tough, on paper they look formidably well balanced from top to tail despite the telling absence of the vastly competent Graeme Smith. But as successive World Cups and Champions Trophies have shown with nothing beyond semi-finals, on paper is where they usually leave their form in the big events.
What the event needs early in the piece is a Chris Gayle special and the world will immediately wake up. The dreadlocked showman can usually be relied on to provide – he scored three hundreds in the 2006 Champions Trophy and lit up the last World Twenty20 which the West Indians astonishingly won.
They have developed Pakistan's tendency to infuriate; they lost all five matches to Australia last winter but at their best they can be extremely powerful.
A new captain in Dwayne Bravo – perhaps not before time – big hitters to complement Gayle in Kieron Pollard and Marlon Samuels, Sunil Narine's tricky spin which has remained bafflingly effective – he was easily the most economical of the leading bowlers in the recent Indian Premier League – and there could be another surprise in store.
Their win in Colombo ought to remind them that they can prevail in the big time but first they have to get out of their group.
ICC Champions Trophy: Where and when
Fixtures (10.30am start unless stated)
Thursday India v South Africa, Cardiff
Friday Pakistan v West Indies, The Oval
Saturday England v Australia, Edgbaston
Sunday New Zealand v Sri Lanka, Cardiff
Monday Pakistan v South Africa, Edgbaston (1pm)
Tuesday India v West Indies, The Oval
Wednesday Australia v New Zealand, Edgbaston
13 June England v Sri Lanka, The Oval (1pm)
14 June South Africa v West Indies, Cardiff
15 June India v Pakistan, Edgbaston
16 June England v New Zealand, Cardiff
17 June Australia v Sri Lanka, The Oval (1pm)
19 June First Semi-final, The Oval
20 June Second Semi-final, Cardiff
23 June Final, Edgbaston
1998 South Africa
2000 New Zealand
2002 India and Sri Lanka (after two wash-outs)
2004 West Indies
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