Save the best for the last

The final Champions Trophy could be a cracker, weather willing.

MS Dhoni: Let's hope his bat talks.
‘An unwanted child’. ‘A turkey of a tournament’. ‘A damp squib’.

Descriptions of varying rudeness have been used for the Champions Trophy, a tournament beget purely of commerce that will meet a permanent denouement in England and Wales this year. Again, it's only fitting that commerce alone has allowed the event to take place one last time.

With the ICC moving towards one premier event for each format – the Twenty20 and 50-overs World Cups and the proposed Test Championship for cricket – there is, once various cash-rich pajama leagues are factored in, no financial or administrative rationale for undertaking this biannual exercise in logistics.

The television rights for England-2013, however, were sold well in advance, and the ICC’s subsequent offer to replace the tournament with qualifying matches for the Test Championship did not cut it with the broadcaster. Eight countries hence will have a final fling at a prize that originated as a knockout tourney and then underwent several crises of format and identity.

Cracking show

Proximity to the afterlife, however, doesn’t necessarily mean we won't have a cracking show on TV. The tournament was an unequivocal weather-ravaged failure the last time England hosted it in 2004, but a tweaked format means the present edition is pretty much what a real man's World Cup should be, but never will: No minnows, no dead matches, tight scheduling, and the pressing provision that five straight wins will lead a team to the trophy.

A new ball from either end on devious England grounds is likely to thicken the plot. And another intrigue would be the mindset of various teams as they enter what is likely to be considered a preparatory or trial-run for future assignments. Australia and England will have an eye on the impending Ashes, over-reachers New Zealand will want to make the most of their acquaintance with local conditions, and Sri Lanka and West Indies will keep a tab on their new captains, Angelo Mathews and Dwayne Bravo respectively.

For India, and the billion-strong fan faction she is touted to be buoyed – or pulled down – by, the resumption of international cricket will be a welcome distraction from the dirty tumult of recent events. But if victory is the ultimate salve, its procurement will not come easy. For, MS Dhoni’s men have been clubbed in the league stage with South Africa, West Indies and Pakistan, who are the only team to have never won, or even jointly won, the event.

Group of Death

The top eight teams have been cleaved into groups of four, leading to the e inevitable branding of one cluster – Group B – as the ‘Group of Death’. India’s batting heavyweights will thus battle Pakistan’s bowling might, South Africa’s solidity and the recently-reacquired West Indian swagger for two semifinal places.

Having left behind Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, they will be served by young openers Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay, and a middle order whose worth against the moving ball is still suspect. Reciprocally, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav are likely to revel in helpful conditions, provided they keep their heads against batsmen of the likes of AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle and Mohhamad Hafeez.

As a special mention, the role of South Africa’s Dale Steyn, who was impossible to handle even on dead IPL tracks, cannot be overstated. Expect Pakistan’s terrorizing attack – led by the seven-foot-plus Mohammad Irfan – to swing a few games too. This much is sure – Group B's combustible elements are likely to light up the tournament even before the knock-out stage is reached.

Aussies look strong

The other segregation appears, at least theoretically, more sedate.  Hosts England have put their faith in a full-strength pace attack, backed by one spinner – Graeme Swann, and in the absence of Kevin Pietersen their few options of batting brutality reside in Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara.

Australia’s IPL successes will ensure they hit the ground running. Left armers Mitchell Johnson and James Faulkner are in form and supplementing them, if not frankly outshining them, will be Mitchell Starc. David Warner and Glenn Maxwell will be out to prove the IPL was but an aberration, while skipper Michael Clarke and Shane Watson will provide the class and experience.

Like always, Sri Lanka and New Zealand form the backend. The Islanders, under Mathews, have heavyweights such as Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, but all fared poorly in the recent IPL. New Zealand have spent almost a month in England and have also bested their hosts in the ODI series. Their frontline batsmen appear to be in good form and the Kiwis anyway have a history of pulling off surprises in big tournaments.

The Groups: 'A': Australia, Sri Lanka, England and New Zealand; 'B': India, Pakistan, South Africa and West Indies.

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