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No choke, it really is South Africa's turn

England look hopeless and only India can stop hosts winning what will be a memorable Champions Trophy.

This must be South Africa's time. But then it has been South Africa's time many times before. With a succession of accomplished teams in a succession of big tournaments, they have not so much seized the day as fled from it in a blind panic.

It must therefore be with some apprehension that they have been installed as clear favourites to win the Champions Trophy in their own country. They are the No 1 side in the world, they have home advantage, they are well rested having played no cricket since the World Twenty20 in June, they have a balanced side with a blend of wise old heads and raw go-getters.

Their unerring ability to lose big games, however, is always likely to haunt them. Only winning can enable them to shed a reputation as chokers and their tendency to choke precludes them winning. If it was not choking that ensured their elimination from the semi-finals of the World Twenty20 by the eventual winners, Pakistan, they had dealt clinically and efficiently with everybody else in the tournament.

The Champions Trophy is the runt of the International Cricket Council competition litter, friendless and ugly. This year's event is a re-run. It was meant to be staged in Pakistan last summer but was cancelled at the last minute because teams would have refused to go.

If the competition has struggled to find a place in a crowded calendar, the ICC have attempted to change its status by throwing money at it. The total prize pot is $4m (£2.46m) and the winners will receive half of that. This is not Indian Premier League-style cash where individuals can earn that amount in a single tournament, but it is still a whopping amount.

The sniffy might opine that the money cannot lend the Champions Trophy any class. A tart who wins a million dollars is only a tart with money. But the other thing the ICC have done is amend the tournament.

So instead of having 12 teams, as they did in England in 2004, or 10 as they did in India in 2006, there are now eight. These are the top eight in the world, the full-member nations of the ICC apart from Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, who have been told thanks but no thanks. The competition will be short and sharp and therefore it might provide a shock by actually being a decent spectacle involving the world's best cricketers. The whole event contains 13 matches in 14 days. Somebody somewhere is learning.

The cricket has a chance of being of a high quality and it will move quickly on. There might be some close groups, though the fact that the shambolic West Indies have sent what is at best a second team means that Group A will be a three-way fight. The dispute between the Caribbean's leading players and their board continues. It is lamentable and it besmirches both the competition and the game.

Nor is it possible to predict anything but disaster for England. A win in the opening match on Friday against Sri Lanka might open different horizons but they have forgotten how to win. Their employers have demeaned the tournament by sending out the team so late. England (and Australia) will arrive at their hotel in Johannesburg at about the same time as the opening ceremony starts up the road.

Only West Indies have less of a chance of progressing than England. Of course, if something suddenly clicks then Andrew Strauss may find his lads on a roll. But England look bereft.

South Africa's main competitors will be India, who do not quite have a full-strength team but have enough depth for that not to matter. Although their overall playing record in South Africa is poor, they reached the World Cup final in the country in 2003.

Australia will take encouragement from the thrashing of England but better, more clever teams lie in wait. Pakistan, the surprise World T20 champions only three months ago, might have another shock left in them.

Despite precedent, however, it is hard to look beyond the hosts. And if South Africa do muck it up it will, as always, provide memorable theatre.

Group-by-group guide

Group A:


Captain: Ricky Ponting.

Key player: Brett Lee. Still has the astonishing gift of changing course of innings in a trice with fast, late swing.

Prospects: Holders, but not the team they were. Although self-belief is never to be underestimated, the semi-finals should be the limit of progress if not ambition.



Captain: Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Key player: Sachin Tendulkar (right). Still sets the tempo at top of order and still magnificent – and may have Rahul Dravid as opening partner.

Prospects: Could, maybe should go all the way despite absence of some stars like Virender Sehwag. Have lost only four of 17 ODIs this year, three of them dead rubbers.



Captain: Younis Khan.

Key player: Shahid Afridi. Mercurial, multi-gifted cricketer who can make decisive interventions in both skills.

Prospects: Patchy record this year – three ODI series played, all lost – should be ignored. Well rested, have skilled fast bowling and just enough experienced batting.


West Indies

Captain: Floyd Reifer.

Key player: Darren Sammy. In a shamefully weak squad, about the only player with international credentials.

Prospects: None – unless the dispute between their best players and the board is settled. The present squad are no better than a second team. Talks continue and the ICC say late replacements are acceptable.


Group B


Captain: Andrew Strauss.

Key player: Strauss. In a woefully underperforming, weary team he alone looks capable of accumulating a workmanlike score – and he keeps giving it away.

Prospects: As slender as they can ever have been. Look well off the pace, short of inspiration and ideas. Will probably win.


New Zealand

Captain: Daniel Vettori.

Key player: Shane Bond. Has returned hungry and still quick after Indian Cricket League sojourn.

Prospects: As ever, dark horses but recent form suggests that they will do well to survive the group.


South Africa

Captain: Graeme Smith.

Key player: Jacques Kallis. Still churning out the runs and overs after all these years; high class.

Prospects: Should win, will probably lose because it is their destiny to lose, heart-breakingly, home or away and a nation will mourn.


Sri Lanka

Captain: Kumar Sangakkara.

Key player: Sanath Jayasuriya. The man who changed the face of one-day cricket for good has it in him one more time.

Prospects: Have consistently punched below their one-day weight lately as potency of talismanic Muttiah Muralitharan fades.