ICC Trophy: Too many questions and too few heroics

Sparse crowds, dew, poor pitches - whose fault?
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The Independent Online

For a sporting event with a global television audience of 1 billion it has always been notoriously easy to get sniffy about the Champions Trophy. Perhaps its most embarrassing occasion - but there have been plenty - was in 2002, when it rained in Colombo.

On both days set aside for the final, one complete innings was possible, with only a little of the second. But under the regulations at the time a new match had to be started on each day. Thus Sri Lanka made 244 for 5 on the first day and 222 for 7 on the second, India replying with 14 for 0 and 38 for 1. And that was that. After three weeks and 14 (and a half) games, everybody packed up to go home not much the wiser.

The Champions Trophy had not fulfilled part of the bargain: there were no champions. Short of retitling it simply The Trophy, what were the International Cricket Council to do?

The 2006 version should at least avoid that fate even as autumn descends on northern India. Barring a late, late monsoon, one of New Zealand, West Indies, South Africa and Australia or India will be crowned ICC Champions Trophy winners next Sunday.

But that will not stop the sniffing. The Champions Trophy, to its critics, seems to embody everything that is wrong with international cricket. The ICC have started to adopt gallows humour, now considering themselves at fault for everything from the code of conduct to world hunger. But there are questions for them and their chief executive, Malcolm Speed.

Why have the crowds been so small?

They were small in Sri Lanka and in England in 2004. People desist from attending neutral games. While this has not done much for India's standing as a cricket-daft nation, it has not helped that matches have coincided with Hindu and Muslim festivals, Diwali and Eid respectively.

Ticket prices have seemed high. They were set by the Board of Control for Cricket in India and approved by the ICC. Packages were offered in Jaipur: buy a ticket for India's game and get slashed prices for other matches.

In the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka in February, where schools cricket attracts thousands, the ICC made entry free. Matches were still played in empty grounds. But the time of year, down to the Indian board, has not helped.

The truth is that countriesprotect their own bilateral series.

Does anybody watch on television?

It is estimated that the global audience will again exceed 1bn, the majority in the subcontinent. Some 300 people were gathered round a set in a Chandigarh street watching India on Friday. All countries watch their own - and many have come to prefer watching matches on television.

Are the broadcasters happy?

It seems they are. Directors become frustrated at small crowds because a small live crowd can convey a lack of theatre.

But audiences are generally robust. Broadcasters have just begun the bidding for the next eight-year cycle of ICC events, starting after the 2007 World Cup. That involves 19 ICC events in all, one a year involving full- member countries.

What about the format of the Champions Trophy?

Perhaps the next event will involve only the top eight nations, therefore excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. But it will remain a 50-over competition.

The trouble with this is that it leaves the concern of how Bangladesh and Zimbabwe can improve without playing better opposition. On the other hand, a preliminary round-robin here, involving six matches in four cities, produced the outcome everybody predicted.

Is there too much cricket, with the World Cup and Twenty20 both next year?

The members of the ICC agreed to have one ICC event a year. But they also need to generate income themselves with their own bilateral series or triangular tournaments.

The support is generally unswerving until it comes to a nation's turn to stage an event (applying probably to everything but the World Cup). ICC want to get the balance right. They have to generate income for developing countries. The Champions Trophy and the Twenty 20 will go head to head after 2011: depending on popularity, there will be one or the other every two years.

What about the low scores in this event?

Some people like the idea that the bowlers are being given a chance and the batsmen are having to work hard. It's called cricket. But it could be a factor in live crowds, who like manifold boundaries, staying away.

Had it been at a different time of year pitches would have been more conducive to run-scoring but that's nimbyism again.

Are the pitches good enough?

A case of glue, dew and probably Barney Magrew. Late-season pitches have had to be glued together with a special bonding agent for consistency, and a dew-reducer has been introduced to ensure second innings are not farcical.

In Bombay, the ground staff might have suffered from a late monsoon and their inexperience in preparing pitches for international cricket - the gap had been 11 years.

Have matches been selected for random dope-testing?

Two out of six have been picked so far, with two players from either side. New Zealand happened to be involved in both. Testers can never give teams the idea that once tested they are free to do as they wish.

Why are England rubbish?

Not even the ICC can answer that one.