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However weak the opposition, the tournament’s format means that one negative result can knock a team out. There is little time for sides to ease themselves into the competition. Therein lies the beauty of the Champions Trophy.

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Charles, hands over the ICC Champions Trophy to Colin Graves of the ECB as the event is formally inaugurated at The Oval on May 25, 2017 in London. The championship runs from June 1 to 18.   -  Getty Images

The ICC Champions Trophy was meant to have disappeared from our sights four years ago, strangely phased out in favour of a proposed World Test Championship. Following the success of the 2013 edition, though, the ICC resurrected the Champions Trophy in early 2014, instead doing away with the World Test Championship. “It proved impossible to come up with a format for a four-team finals event in Test cricket that fits the culture of Test cricket and preserves the integrity of the format,” an ICC press release in February 2014 said. “The most recent ICC Champions Trophy event proved to be very popular with supporters around the world and the future events will build on this success. It’s also an event that any ICC Member (including the top Associate Members) can aspire to qualifying for by improving their performances in ODI cricket. With the ICC Champions Trophy alongside the ICC Cricket World Cup and ICC World Twenty20 and the formats and venues already confirmed for all of these events the ICC has a really attractive package for 2015-23 to take to the market.”

It is as part of this ‘attractive package’ that the 2017 Champions Trophy arrives, an 18-day competition in the UK with no inconsequential fixtures. There is no need, unlike the World Cup, to wait a whole month for the knock-outs. “On a few previous occasions, I felt there were a lot of other Associate nations and it had kind of devalued the Champions Trophy. But this time a couple of weeks and it was over. The little changes which ICC made here, the players really enjoyed it. Tournaments like this would certainly help the game,” Ricky Ponting noted in 2009, when the Champions Trophy had first switched to an eight-team format.

Among the competing sides this time, there is no place for the West Indies, which was outside the top eight on 30 September 2015 when the line-ups were confirmed. England ought to be the favourite, a competent, attacking unit reconstructed in the wake of a disastrous World Cup. Since the end of that tournament, no team has a better win-loss ratio (2) than England (as of May 25). Eoin Morgan, the captain, has been in fine form, averaging 56 since August, as against a career average of 38. He has scored three of his 11 ODI hundreds in this period, over 14 games. This is a bold team, with a number of limited-overs specialists. More importantly, this is a settled unit with well-defined roles. Jason Roy and Alex Hales can whack the ball around at the top, Joe Root and Morgan can bat through, while Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler can play the big shots at the finish. Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett are useful one-day bowlers, and then there is Stokes — easily the finest all-rounder in international cricket today — with his pace, although his knee injury will concern England. That Sam Billings and Jonny Bairstow cannot even get into the side is a measure of the talent at Morgan’s disposal. England’s batsmen will be confident of chasing any total down. On home soil, they will be tough to beat.

India, the defending champion, arrives after a long home season. Except for a break at the turn of the year, India has played non-stop cricket, across formats, since the start of the New Zealand series in September. Virat Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja have had some respite following their early exits from the IPL, but Umesh Yadav was involved with KKR until a week ago. Not all personnel have had the same exacting schedule, though. Rohit Sharma has not played for India since October owing to a thigh injury, something he has now recovered from. R. Ashwin missed the IPL with a sports hernia while Mohammed Shami’s last ODI was the World Cup semifinal of 2015. Shikhar Dhawan has been in and out of the scheme of things, while M. S. Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh and Kedar Jadhav have been playing only limited overs cricket for the national team.

India won the 2013 edition in memorable fashion, stealing the trophy from under English noses in a thriller in Edgbaston. “The first challenge is not to think about the fact that we are defending the title,” Kohli said before departure in Mumbai. “When we went there the last time, we just wanted to enjoy ourselves as a young unit and we ended up winning the tournament, and we ended up creating a team that has done so well so far.” This is Kohli’s first major ICC event as captain, and it will be interesting to note how he leads the side after a summer of disappointment in the IPL. On arrival in London, he felt the Indian team — the personnel not a lot different — was more mature than the side that travelled here four years ago. “I am very excited to be playing as captain in my first major ICC competition,” he said. “As far as the team goes, we won last time because our fast bowlers did very well, our spinners were strong and our opening batsmen did well. They were the main three factors. This year the team is a lot fitter, the cricketers are a lot more mature because that was a very young group four years ago. It has gained a lot of experience in the last three or four years.”

Some members of defending champion India snapped in the team bus. The squad is much more mature than what it was four years ago, says skipper Virat Kohli.

 

India will begin its campaign — in what has now become a staple of ICC tournaments — against Pakistan in Birmingham on June 4. Pakistan’s record in ODI cricket has been dire in recent years. The last significant one-day series win for Pakistan came in November 2013 away to South Africa. Since then, the team has only managed series wins against Zimbabwe, West Indies, Ireland and Sri Lanka. In the last four years, Pakistan has lost one-day series to Bangladesh, England, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Under Mickey Arthur, there has been some progress although the South African admitted himself that the team was still playing limited overs cricket that “belonged in the 20th century”. The new captain, Sarfaraz Khan, will hope he and Babar Azam can score quick runs, something Pakistani one-day teams of recent vintage have not managed. The absence of big hitters will be a worry, particularly in the absence of Sharjeel Khan, who has been charged with corruption by the PCB. The Umar Akmal controversy — the batsman was sent home after failing two fitness tests during the preparatory camp in Birmingham — has been an unwelcome distraction ahead of the tournament, amid murmurs of disagreement between Arthur and chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq. The bowling remains a strength, though, with a great deal of excitement surrounding the teenaged leg-spinner Shadab Khan, who took three for seven on his international debut against the West Indies. Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali, and Junaid Khan — who returned earlier this year after a lengthy interlude — are capable pace bowlers.

Sri Lanka, India’s second opponent, does not seem the strongest side around but as the returning Angelo Mathews pointed out, his men were “happy to be underdogs”. Lasith Malinga’s presence in the ODI setup — for the first time since November 2015 — will inspire the team. South Africa, India’s final Group A rival, continues to chase a major international title since the first ICC Champions Trophy (or the ICC Knock-Out, as it was known then) in 1998. The captain, AB de Villiers, has taken a break from Test cricket and it remains his greatest ambition to win a World Cup. A good performance here will be a big step in that direction.

In Group B, Australia remains a strong contender, with an intimidating bowling group of Mitchell Starc, Patrick Cummins, James Pattinson and Josh Hazlewood. Steve Smith and David Warner have spent three months in India leading up to the Champions Trophy, though, and fatigue — mental if not physical — could be an issue. The dispute between the Australian Cricketers' Association and Cricket Australia will, Smith believes, not prove a distraction.

New Zealand and Bangladesh have potential for damage. The two teams met recently in a tri-series in Ireland, when Bangladesh secured its first ODI victory over the Black Caps away from home. The result propelled Mashrafe Mortaza’s men to sixth in the ICC rankings, ahead of Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

However weak the opposition, the tournament’s format means that one negative result can knock a team out. There is little time for sides to ease themselves into the competition. Therein lies the beauty of the Champions Trophy.

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