These are indeed testing times for ODI cricket. Almost every one from cricketers (past, present and future) to the administrators to the common man has been questioning the credibility of this format when faced with a more belligerent and supposedly higher entertaining T20 cricket. That after all hands have been dealt the next major tournament under the ICC umbrella is still a 50-over tournament just goes to show that there is life yet in the ODIs.
But for how long is something that will be decided in the course of the next two weeks. The 2009 Champions Trophy, originally supposed to be held in 2008 and in Pakistan, has had one long arduous journey. Security threats and proposed player/team pull-outs if the tournament was held in Pakistan to the impracticality of hosting the tournament in Sri Lanka to cramped international schedules meant that once again the world travels to South Africa to play.
At the same time, there were calls to axe the tournament itself from the cricket calendar. Too many pointless tournaments they said, especially in the wake of some teams being beaten to pulp in a five or seven match ODI series. On top of that, getting the minnows in, playing in groups, expanding the number of matches and making it a long futile mini-world cup scenario previously, did in-fact add on to the calls to chop this event off.
In that sense, the ICC has done at least something right by reverting to its most prime set-up. Invite the top eight teams, get a small tournament going and every body is happily away at home in around two weeks. The one difference from the 1998 Dhaka edition is that the eight teams have been divided into groups and not the knock-out system of eleven years ago.
The group stages add to the credibility of the tournament for the team that will eventually come out on top would have played a majority of other strong teams from the field available. In a knock-out format, that eventuality is more or less reduced as any one having a better day in office – two or three of them in a row – would go on to claim the crown. That is also something that the governing body has called correctly. All we need now is a cracker of a tournament and everything will be high and handsome for ODI cricket.
No, not so easy! For, the administrators can set a stage but still do only as much when it comes to the real thing. The true stars, the handsomely paid cricketers, have to get onto that stage and do their job, only then will the work done by all truly matter. And so, the eight teams that have come out in their full colors will once again be the centre of attraction. Who will be the ultimate charmer remains to be seen, though.
By right, it should be South Africa. They have dominated world cricket in every format over the last couple of years. Stretch it a bit further, they have gone into every major tournament for the last couple of decades as favourites yet somehow managed to goof it up and get just one piece of silverware in their cabinet, the inaugural Knock-Out Trophy in 1998. They have always wanted to redeem themselves for the failure in the 2003 World Cup at home, and many more; this is their big opportunity.
Even so, in all probability they will falter in the semis. Who is next in line then? Australia, maybe, for off late they have been fighting hard and scrapping for wins in the ODIs as they regroup after the Ashes loss. Only problem is that they have been scrapping against England and taking into consideration the depths that English cricket has plummeted to in this seven match series, the Aussies ought to think twice about calling themselves true contenders for the job. Oh, by the way, that is the last word on English chances as well!
Are the teams from the subcontinent the real contenders then? Well, talking of India, the one thing they have really got going is their batting. Their fielding and bowling prowess can desert them at any instant, which has been their story for the last two decades, and so much consistency is needed to win a tournament of this level. It is not to say that they can’t do it but one is just pointing out what is missing in their efforts.
Sri Lanka on the other hand would have been favourites if they didn’t have lingering problems in their batting order. They are too top heavy, especially with Dilshan going ballistic early on. But you can’t play him elsewhere when he is in such fine nick and so, it will always be about the top four batsmen in their side. International cricket doesn’t work that way, now does it?
The less said about Pakistan the better. For, they themselves do quite a bit of talking. In fact they talk more round the year than the amount of cricket they get to play. They are the one team in world cricket for whom the adage, silence is golden, works perfectly. Just a few months ago, they managed to keep quiet and work their way to a T20 World Cup win. If only they would do so, this time around as well.
That leaves New Zealand and West Indies. The former, at the time of writing, had lost their warm-up game to the South African domestic side Chevrolet Warriors and coming on the back of the smacking that they got in Sri Lanka, that is hardly anything to lift their moods. The latter have sent in a b-grade team, for whatever reasons, and the fact that they were cleaned up by Bangladesh in their own backyard ought to have turned the illustrious forefathers of West Indies cricket in their graves. If it is about making up the numbers, then truth be told, Bangladesh should have been playing here. Period!
As many as five teams then, have a good shot at laying their hands on the trophy. Make that seven (and no more please!) if you want to count in New Zealand and England, for stranger things have happened in cricket. All in all, the 2009 Champions Trophy promises to be one hell of a tug-of-war and no matter who wins, ODI cricket will be the champion. And it better be!
© Cricket World 2009