The last chance before the World Cup

LARA... cricket offers nothing better than the chance to stand against these great players.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The 2006 Champions Trophy will be both exhilarating and fiercely fought. Wise teams will realise that the event gives them a priceless chance to pit themselves against their peers. Less accomplished sides will appreciate the chance provided by intense competition to assess their progress, writes PETER ROEBUCK.

No fears need be held about the success of the forthcoming Champions Trophy. A uniquely sub-continental event will be played in fascinating places and before packed houses. Moreover its timing is propitious. Far from distracting attention from this month of compelling confrontations, the imminence of the Ashes and the prospect of a World Cup early next year adds to their relevance.

By no means can the competition be dismissed as an untimely nuisance. Despite haughty remarks heard from England, teams taking part will surely be inspired by the presence of all the planet's great cricketers and all the leading teams (and none of the duds). A team that arrives reluctantly is doomed to defeat both here and hereafter.

Cricket offers nothing better than the chance to stand against Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Mahela Jayawardene and Mohammad Yousuf. England must play with relish. Not that the Trophy is the be-all and end-all of the game. Except in the fevered imaginations of promoters and impassioned nationalists, it has not yet become a major event in the cricketing calendar. Certainly it cannot be compared with the slowly unfolding struggles between ancient rivals and neighbours that can hold us in their grip for days, weeks and sometimes months on end, till time seems to stand still.

Beyond doubt cricket is at its peak when Pakistan and India, or England and Australia, lock horns. Dramas of that scale are not to be recreated willy-nilly. They bring with them the full fury of history, and the enticing promise of conquest. Nor can the Champions Trophy, or any similar event, stand beside a World Cup. Rather it is a passing affair lacking the permanence, the place in the record books and in the memories of supporters that accompanies the truest competitions.

Never mind that all of the strongest teams are taking part, and none of the also-rans. Countries spend years preparing for a World Cup because of its historic significance. It is the eternal search for greatness and glory.

Spectators, too, recognise the difference between the prince and the pretender. Regardless of subsequent results, the World Cup winner wears the crown till the next event of the same stature. Everything else pales beside it.

Nevertheless the 2006 Champions Trophy will be both exhilarating and fiercely fought. Wise teams will realise that the event gives them a priceless chance to pit themselves against their peers. Less accomplished sides will appreciate the chance provided by intense competition to assess their progress. Indeed it is the last such opportunity before the World Cup begins. Moreover all three of the regional powerhouses will be sanguine about their prospects.

Accordingly their contests will be compelling. England, too, ought to welcome the chance to rekindle the fires that raged in the last Ashes series. After a rotten summer spent trying to subdue sub-continental batsmen, they have been given a chance to sharpen their games before the plane lands in Perth. A strong performance will prepare them superbly for the ensuing bombardment.

Losing is a habit. Winning is a feeling. For their part, the Australians will be committed to taking the trophy and to landing a few early blows on their forthcoming opponents. They remember the stunning power England unleashed upon them in a 20-over match before the last Ashes series began, an aggression that set the tone for the summer. Now it is time to return the favour. No need for anyone to look downcast, the appetite has not been sated. A cricketer is a long time retired. Mumbai, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, here we come!