Crucial ODI tournament

Raring to go... India skipper M. S. Dhoni at a press conference ahead of the Champions Trophy in Johannesburg.-AP

At a time when the ODI format is fighting for survival, the success of the 2009 Champions Trophy will help serve as a benchmark for the administrators to decide on the future of the 50-over game.

The ICC Champions Trophy has proved to be the launch pad for some cricketers apart from providing some high quality contests in the past. The 2000 edition (it was called the ICC knockout tournament then) saw the emergence of Yuvraj Singh, who has since gone on to become one of the most feared batsmen in international cricket.

The ascendancy of Yuvraj Singh coincided with the rise of Sourav Ganguly’s stature as a captain, but in a span of nine years things have come to such an extent that the 2009 Champions Trophy has failed to create the buzz that the previous editions had. At a time when the ODI format is fighting for survival, the success and following that the 2009 Champions Trophy achieves will serve as a benchmark for the administrators to decide on the future of the 50-over game.

However, from the cricketers’ point of view, the Champions Trophy will provide South Africa, the host, another chance of getting rid of its infamous and irksome ‘chokers’ tag. South Africa is on top of the ICC rankings but it can all change within the next fortnight.

Graeme Smith will be keen to ensure that his side remains at the top just as Mahendra Singh Dhoni will strive to take India to the top. The Indians are bracketed with Australia, Pakistan and the West Indies in Group A; one wonders whether the tag of ‘group of death’ is justified.

The Australians have not been at their best despite their near whitewash of England in the seven-match one-day series. Pakistan can be as inconsistent as only it can be. The West Indies is not expected to take the world by storm though it can always stunt other teams’ progress. Team India has its share of issues too, but its form in the last couple of seasons has been excellent and the recent victory in the Compaq Cup in Sri Lanka would serve as a morale booster. The absence of Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan will be felt in South Africa where experience will come in handy. And with the Indian skipper making it obvious that he is unhappy with his team’s fielding and bowling, there is lot of work to be done for the Indians.

The main point of interest will be the kind of surfaces that are produced for the Champions Trophy. Since the tournament is being played at the start of the summer in South Africa, one can hope to see the bowlers having a level playing field. And with only two venues earmarked for the entire tournament, there could be some joy for the spinners as well towards the final stages. But if CSA (Cricket South Africa) provides flat tracks as they did in the 2003 World Cup, it will be akin to issuing a death warrant to one-day cricket. The batsmen had a rollicking time in the 2003 World Cup, but people even today remember the low-scoring close encounter between India and England as against the matches with tall scores in that tournament. To watch a side pile up runs all the time and that too over a period of 3½ hours, will only be as interesting and as realistic as a WWE bout.

The format of the Champions Trophy this year does not provide the teams with any cushion for a bad outing as the sides hoping to qualify have to win two out of the three games in the league stage. With the Indians banking heavily on their batting, it becomes paramount that the top order gets into the act straightaway. The return of Gautam Gambhir will give India the extra muscle at the top and there is no better recipe than a left-right combination to unsettle the bowlers.

India will depend on its experienced batsmen to deliver and it will be reasonable to presume that they will not be given many opportunities to drive. The Indian batsmen’s shot-making ability off the back foot will be probed and tested by the Australian and Pakistani fast bowlers. It remains to be seen if the forcing shots off the back foot will be employed with enough conviction and felicity, as therein lies the key to put up runs on the board.

While the success of the Indians will depend on the improvements they make to their bowling and fielding, the survival of the ODI version of the game will depend on the excitement and the quality of cricket that will unfold in the Champions Trophy. The quality of cricket hinges on the nature of the tracks available and CSA has to strike a delicate balance in ensuring that the pitches are not heavily loaded in favour of the batsmen or bowlers.

One other important factor will be the performance of the host nation as its success will be imperative if the spectators are to turn up at the venues. Team India will have its share of support but given the current scenario, the administrators will be desperate to see full house for the matches right through the tournament. CSA is renowned for its organisational abilities, but this time it is faced with the biggest challenge of keeping the waning format of the game alive. Then, of course, there is only so much any one organisation can do and it is up to the teams participating to keep the ball rolling.