Zimbabwe tour go-ahead blights England preparations

Michael Vaughan would have preferred to concentrate on England's prospects of winning the fourth ICC Champions' Trophy, and the joy of leading his side out in front of a capacity crowd in cricket's second biggest tournament. But this is impossible when your first match is against Zimbabwe, a side which has been torn apart by internal politics and accusations of racism, and only 5,000 tickets for the opening match have been sold.

The apathy being shown by fans in the Midlands is not a reflection on the quality of cricket being played by England, or the ability of Zimbabwe - whose board sacked 14 of its top players in March when they refused to play in a one-day international because they felt the side was being picked on grounds of race rather than ability.

No English summer has contained as much international cricket as 2004 and today's attendance, in the first of five matches at Edgbaston, suggests that most fans have had their fill. The tournament will gather momentum, weather permitting, when the two strongest sides in each of the four groups begin playing each other in a week's time. But the number of matches played at The Oval, the Rose Bowl and here in Birmingham allows spectators to cherry-pick.

The make-up of Zimbabwe's team led to their withdrawal from Test cricket but England's problems with the country run far deeper. England's cricketers refused to travel there to play a qualifying match in the 2003 World Cup so they were not seen to be supporting Robert Mugabe's regime, and a planned 13-day November tour with five one-day internationals - confirmed by the England and Wales Cricket Board yesterday - has kept this issue in the headlines.

"The Board has concluded that the tour to Zimbabwe must go ahead, subject to it being safe and secure to do so," said David Morgan, the ECB chairman, explaining the Board's decision. "I must emphasise again that by undertaking the Tour, players and management will be in no way condoning the situation in Zimbabwe, but rather following the direction of their board. We would like all players to tour but would not penalise anybody who chose not to."

"It is disappointing to see Zimbabwean cricket like it is," said Vaughan, the England captain. "They are not in a nice situation. Guys like Heath Streak [the former Zimbabwe captain] and Grant Flower are missing out on a huge tournament and the chance to show their talents to the world. But we have to concentrate on our team. We are preparing as we would to play any team in the world and if we play as well as we did against India we will be fine."

England should win today's match comfortably but their future in the tournament will be decided on 17 September when they take on Sri Lanka. Each of the four groups contains three teams and a victory at the Rose Bowl could take Vaughan's side into the semi-finals where they will play either Australia or New Zealand.

The Champions' Trophy was first competed for in Bangladesh six years ago as a fundraiser for cricket development but has now become a two-yearly carnival to sit between World Cups.

In its first week, when the strongest eight countries take on Bangladesh, Kenya, Zimbabwe and the USA, the cricket looks set to be one-sided but the possibility of rain means there will still be plenty to play for. Should the weather lead to the abandonment of a match between the two big guns in each group during week two their passage through to the semis will be decided by who gained the bigger victory over the weaker teams.

The timing of this event could lead to the toss having a big - too big - influence on matches. To prevent bad light affecting play in the evening games are scheduled to start at 10.15am. In September, at this time of the day, the remnants of overnight dew could provide teams with excellent conditions on which to bowl.

Seamers dominating proceedings will not help the International Cricket Council, which is using this tournament to collect information on spinners to help the game's governing body set guidelines for what is, and what is not, a legitimate action.

The bowler with the most controversial action in cricket, Muttiah Muralitharan, will not be present. The Sri Lankan spinner is recovering from an operation on his right shoulder and he, along with Sachin Tendulkar, will be missed.

The ICC has used this tournament to test out new technological ideas and this year is no exception. During the last contest in Sri Lanka, umpires were allowed to send close lbw decisions back to a third umpire.

This system has not been used since but further ideas to aid umpires will be tested. During the next 15 days the on-field umpires will be wired to stump microphones so that they can hear as well as see whether or not the ball has hit the bat. No-balls will also be called by the third umpire and this will allow them to concentrate solely on decisions at the batsman's end.

Champs or chumps? Angus Fraser's tournament Gguide

Group A

Australia

The world champions are too good for most sides even when they fail to play to their potential and this is why they start as favourites. Ricky Ponting's team are at full strength and desperate to win a trophy that has eluded them. Their toughest game will probably be the group match against New Zealand.

Player to watch: Andrew Symonds (below) - hits the ball as hard as Andrew Flintoff.

Prediction: Winners if they beat New Zealand in group game

New Zealand

After winning all their one-day matches in this summer's NatWest Series, the Black Caps have good reason to be confident. Under the guidance of coach John Bracewell and captain Stephen Fleming, they will be well-prepared. If they beat Australia at The Oval on 16 September they could win it.

Player to watch: Chris Cairns - can win a game in 10 overs.

Prediction: Winners if beat Australia in group match.

United States

Cricket has been attempting to break into the US for some time and their first major tournament will only help. Whether their players enjoy the experience is another matter. Australia and New Zealand will show no mercy: both know that should rain cause their game to be abandoned, the team who inflict the heaviest defeat on the US will go through.

Player to watch: Clayton Lambert - 42-year-old slogger who scored a Test hundred for West Indies against England in 1998.

Prediction: Good luck...

Group B

South Africa

Confidence will be low after 10 consecutive one-day defeats but the Proteas have five all-rounders in their ranks and the potential to be a good side. Yet it is still hard to see them qualifying for the semis. The conditions will help their seam-orientated bowling attack but they will need runs from Herschelle Gibbs and Jacques Kallis if they are to beat the West Indies.

Player to watch: Kallis - not as explosive as Flintoff but just as good.

Prediction: Out at group stages.

West Indies

Hopeless at Test cricket but hopeful in the one-day game. Brian Lara's side have plenty of batting talent but their bowling has often let them down. Dwayne Bravo is an exciting all-rounder and the recall of Corey Collymore and Mervyn Dillon gives the bowling greater experience.

Player to watch: Chris Gayle (below) - wonderful striker of the ball and useful spinner.

Prediction: Lose in semis.

Bangladesh

This tournament will allow people to assess their progress under the former Sri Lanka coach, Dav Whatmore. Bangladesh were smashed by England in November but drew a Test match against the West Indies in May. They will miss Habibul Bashar, their captain and best batsman, and will need to show far more discipline than they did in the 2003 World Cup.

Player to watch: Mushfiqur Rahman - good all-rounder.

Prediction: The usual thumping.

Group C

England

Which England team will turn up? Michael Vaughan's side were poor against New Zealand and West Indies in the NatWest Series but looked good last week against India. Vikram Solanki (below) has added energy and athleticism in the field and Alex Wharf looks a useful find. The batsmen need to fire if the host nation are to finish a fantastic summer off in style.

Player to watch: It has to be Flintoff.

Prediction: Lose in semi-finals to Australia or New Zealand.

Sri Lanka

The 1996 World Cup winners arrive here in excellent form after winning 15 of their previous 16 one-day games. If this tournament were being played in Asia, and Muttiah Muralitharan was fit, they would probably start as favourites. This group will be decided when Sri Lanka play England on 17 September, but the Rose Bowl is unlikely to help them. It suits seamers.

Player to watch: Kumar Sangakkara - brilliant player and red hot in verbal exchanges.

Prediction: Loss against England will knock them out.

Zimbabwe

Stripped of their Test status to save the integrity of Test cricket, Zimbabwe are unlikely to gain any credibility over the coming weeks. No side could afford to lose 14 of its best players and remain competitive, let alone a weak one.

Player to watch: Stuart Matsikenyeri - a talented young player with plenty of shots.

Prediction: Early exit.

Group D

India

Sunday's victory at Lord's against England was much needed. India have gone off the boil since winning in Pakistan. The loss of Tendulkar is a huge blow because India's batsmen feed off his presence. Used pitches will help their spinners and if the batting clicks anything is possible. But Pakistan could gain revenge at Edgbaston on 19 September.

Player to watch: Irfan Pathan - he is fiery and fast.

Prediction: Home after two matches.

Pakistan

If their coach Bob Woolmer can add discipline to this talented squad they will become one of the best teams in the world. This appears to be happening and Pakistan should have beaten Australia at Lord's until they began to panic when they needed to remain calm. They have quality fast bowlers, good spinners and sublime batsmen.

Player to watch: Yasir Hameed (below) - exciting young opener.

Prediction: Finalists.

Kenya

World Cup semi-finalists, still reeling from the loss of Maurice Odumbe, who is serving a five-year ban for contact with a bookmaker. Kenya have played three one-day internationals since their success in South Africa, and this has not helped their development.

Player to watch: Steve Tikolo - dangerous all-rounder

Prediction: Brought back down to earth by two good hidings.

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