1998 review: A humble but crucial beginning

The Wills International Cup, the name of the first edition of the tournament in 1998 before it was renamed as the ICC Champions Trophy, was held to generate income for the world governing body of cricket and to help spread the sport beyond the conventional centres.

South Africa captain Hansie Cronje lifts the trophy after his team defeated West Indies by four wickets in the final of the Wills International Cup at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka (Bangladesh).   -  Getty Images

Two modern pillars of competent business practice are revenue expansion and trade. It was with these principles in mind that the second major 50-over tournament — with deliberate modifications to the World Cup format — was born. The Wills International Cup, the name of the first edition of the tournament in 1998 before it was renamed as the ICC Champions Trophy, was held to generate income for the world governing body of cricket and to help spread the sport beyond the conventional centres.

Large crowds thronged the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka, the only venue for the short and express-pace extravaganza of nine days. And it turned out to be like a breathless song. Eight matches were played over nine days and the schedule included a day’s break in between. West Indies played three matches in four days leading up to the final, which it lost to a solid and stable South Africa, propped up by an all-round show from Jacques Kallis. Besides Kallis, Daryll Cullinan and Hansie Cronje, the captain, were among the chief architects of South Africa’s maiden triumph in a major ICC tournament. (Nineteen years later, the title-triumph continues to be South Africa’s only one in a major ICC championship.)

Runner-up West Indies’ campaign was held steady by attacking opener Philo Wallace and fast bowler Mervyn Dillon. Wallace tore apart the Pakistani and South African attacks with quick-fire knocks. The flat pitch and low bounce helped the West Indian hit through the line.

In the days of fielding restrictions for the first 15 overs, Wallace, with his confident stroke-making, helped lay a strong foundation for the West Indies innings. In the quarterfinal against Pakistan, Wallace scored 79 off 58 balls. Later, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Keith Arthurton, the middle-order batsmen, pitched in with useful contributions before Arthurton, with his left-arm spin, snaffled four Pakistani batsmen to help West Indies complete a 30-run victory.

In the semifinals against West Indies, India struggled to score in the initial overs and paid the price. When Rahul Dravid was dismissed at the end of the 26th over, India had not even put 100 on the board. Eventually, opener Sourav Ganguly, ably supported by Robin Singh, helped India reach 242, a total that was eclipsed comfortably by West Indies.

South Africa halted West Indies’ run in the final despite Wallace’s 103 off 102 balls. The West Indian opener found no major ally, barring Carl Hooper (49), as the middle- and lower-order came apart against Kallis, who claimed five wickets and then helped South Africa chase down the target of 246.

It was a perfect end for South Africa, on the back of a Commonwealth Games gold medal win only weeks earlier. In contrast to West Indies, South Africa played its three matches over eight days, with a four-day gap between its quarterfinal against England and semifinal against Sri Lanka. South Africa was evidently a well-oiled unit; its top- and middle-order fired consistently and its bowlers adjusted well to the sub-continental conditions to come up with good performances.

Unlike in the World Cup of 1992, South Africa, this time, came out triumphant in a rain-curtailed semifinal, against Sri Lanka. Thanks to a belligerent century by Kallis and the demolition act carried out by the pace-spin combination of Steve Elworthy and Pat Symcox, South Africa defeated the 1996 champion comprehensively.

Such was South Africa’s domination in the 50-over game that it was tipped to win the World Cup the next year. It was ranked No. 1 owing to its consistent performances in the lead-up to the mega event in England. The team, however, failed to qualify for the final in dramatic circumstances. South Africa has not come up with a commanding performance in any of the ICC’s big-ticket tournaments after the 1998 triumph.

Strangely, the powerhouses of South Asia — India and Pakistan — could not dominate despite the playing conditions being similar to what they were at home. Before its defeat in the semifinals to West Indies, India had sizzled, as Sachin Tendulkar, then at the height of his powers, cracked a match-winning 141 to knock Australia out of the competition. India’s 307 for 8 was the highest total of the tournament. In the next match, Tendulkar scored eight and India lost.

 

The Champions Trophy was modified over the years, but it has not lost its essential quality — of being an alternative to the long and sometimes bloated World Cup. That the tournament continues to generate revenue is not in doubt, as indicated by the ICC overturning its decision to replace the tournament with the ICC Test Championship, owing to likely pressure from broadcasters.

Although Bangladesh hosted its first big cricket tournament with the Champions Trophy, it participated in only one, two years later, in Kenya.

The Wills International Cup had a very low-key beginning in Dhaka and may have looked like any other 50-over tournament being held in the late 1990s. But gradually it has grown into the mega event that it is today.

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