THE dry run before the World Cup

The stakes are high and it is up to the stars to give the Champions Trophy the place it deserves in international cricket, writes Vijay Lokapally.

THE FIXTURES

For the passionate cricket lovers in India, this is one tournament that will give them an insight into their team's preparations for the World Cup. True, the big event is a good six months away, but the Champions Trophy will help the players and the team managements to analyse their strengths and weaknesses better.

For all its hype, the Champions Trophy has failed to generate the kind of interest that Jagmohan Dalmiya, as the International Cricket Council chief, had envisaged. In his quest to globalise cricket, the tournament was Dalmiya's idea of bringing in funds to the ICC kitty.

From the time the Champions Trophy went on stage in 1998 in Dhaka, it has struggled to gain in popularity. If it has not been able to attain the stature of a mini World Cup the reasons are many, the foremost among them being the lack of intensity among the players while playing in the tournament.

The inaugural Champions Trophy raised a huge amount of money — close to ten million pounds — but the tournament failed to attract the attention of a majority of the cricket fans, barring the locals, who thronged the Bangabandhu Stadium on all nine days even when their team had not been given an entry.

England's lack of interest in the inaugural edition was just an indication of the approach that was to dominate the mindset of the players. With most of its star cricketers staying away, England clearly showed that it had no great interest in the Champions Trophy. However, things changed and the subsequent editions saw England participating with its best teams. It also put its seal of approval on the tournament by hosting the 2004 edition.

South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand won the trophy once each, while Sri Lanka and India shared the honours in 2002. A few matches and a few individual performances stood out in these tournaments, but the Champions Trophy failed to capture the imagination of the cricketing fraternity.

Commercial interests have dominated the tournament, and it is widely accepted that the financial back up from India-based companies has ensured that the ICC coffers continued to swell. However, when the ICC abandoned its original idea of organising the event in non-Test playing nations, finding a host for the Champions Trophy became difficult.

Dhaka and Nairobi were the venues for the first two editions of the tournament, but without any local flavour. South Africa dominated in Dhaka and it wasn't a great surprise to see Hansie Cronje lead his team to the title.

Nairobi, however, witnessed some excellent cricket and the final between India and New Zealand was memorable. The contest between Chris Cairns and Anil Kumble was brilliant in which the affable Kiwi came out the winner.

On the eve of the final, there was the talk of the New Zealand batsmen not being able to read Kumble well. Cairns, however, kept an eye on the Indian `nets' and reportedly studied Kumble's action.

And the next day, the New Zealand all-rounder was at his best as he tore into the Indian bowling and steered his team to its first major international title.

"We were beaten by one man," India skipper Sourav Ganguly remarked at the end of the tournament, referring to Cairns' sensational batting performance.

As for India, the tournament saw the arrival of Yuvraj Singh. His blazing performance against Australia was one of the highlights of the Champions Trophy, as he single-handedly destroyed the opposition. His charge against Glenn McGrath was particularly memorable, as he smashed the Aussie fast bowler with some splendid shots on the rise.

When the Champions Trophy travelled to Colombo in 2002, it was gripped by controversy. There was uncertainty about the participation of some key players due to contracts issue, but fortunately things were sorted out in time for the teams to once again test their potential in conditions that were not ideal for quality cricket.

Rain took the sheen off the tournament as India and Sri Lanka shared the trophy after the conditions remained unplayable for two days.

The most insipid phase of the Champions Trophy came in 2004 when England hosted it. By inviting teams like the United States, the organisers did little to improve the quality of the competition. There was widespread criticism on the number of one-sided matches, while the absence of spectators didn't do the tournament any good.

The Indian team failed to live up to its promise, while Pakistan flattered to deceive. West Indies signed of the tournament in grand style by lifting the trophy in front of a packed Oval crowd.

When the tournament began, West Indies hardly had any support. Even in the final, England was the favourite. But the West Indian victory had a huge impact on its supporters.

However, the tournament came a cropper in terms of quality viewership, for the format had proved to be too drab. The final was only a minor consolation for those looking for exciting cricket.

For obvious reasons, the Champions Trophy now travels to India with the host, Pakistan and Sri Lanka being the strong contenders for the title, given the nature of pitches here.

Australia, led by Ricky Ponting, is the eternal favourite in all conditions and it should erase the bitter memories of the past. It is one title that has eluded the mighty Australians and that should motivate both the youngsters such as Mike Hussey and the veterans such as Glenn McGrath and Ponting.

The ever-improving Hussey has emerged as the most dangerous batsman when challenged.

Australia is a compact combination and is the favourite to win the title.

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is the team to watch. Under an innovative captain, Mahela Jayawardene, the team is back to its winning ways. The presence of Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu brings experience to the team.

Pakistan will miss the versatile Inzamam-ul-Haq, easily one of the most attacking batsmen in world cricket today. Personally, it would also be a big blow to Inzamam, who continues to be the pillar of strength of Pakistan cricket. "I don't want to make it an issue because it doesn't not give cricket a good image. I have accepted the decision in the spirit of the game," was how he reacted to the four-match ban slapped on him by the ICC for bringing the game into disrepute.

India would be the team under immense pressure. The great expectations from the fans and the experiments in the playing combination by coach Greg Chappell would keep the players on their toes. The fans would expect Sachin Tendulkar to fire in key matches, while a lot is expected of players such as Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif, not to forget the youngsters like Suresh Raina. It is time for M. S. Dhoni to improve his shot selection.

For Harbhajan Singh too it will be a platform to prove his consistency. "I am looking forward to playing the leading role," said the off-spinner, who is the senior member of the Indian attack that, sadly, does not include the hard-working Sreesanth. The fast bowler from Kerala has lost his place to Rudra Pratap Singh, a decision taken at the behest of the team management.

England can be expected to prosper on the amazingly talented Kevin Pietersen. The return of Andrew Flintoff too adds to the strength of the team.

For South Africa, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh the competition will enable them to plan for the World Cup better. For the right reasons, South Africa and New Zealand can back themselves.

South Africa has the potential to take on the best and New Zealand should gain from the presence of its stalwarts such Stephen Fleming and Nathan Astle, apart from the energetic Shane Bond, a fast bowler with the cleanest action in contemporary cricket.

South Africa has had a few selection worries but Graeme Smith leads a flexible side where Jacques Kallis, Herschelle Gibbs and Mark Boucher lend quality. If South Africa plays to its potential, it could prove to be the dark horse.

Bangladesh and Zimbabwe make up the numbers with neither having any realistic chance of winning the trophy. The stakes are high and it is up to the stars to give the Champions Trophy the place it deserves in international cricket. The mini World Cup is waiting to present some exciting cricket to the fans in India.