The Champions Trophy, which had already begins in South Africa today, is the unloved child of the cricket world. For most of its 10-year existence it has been, in theory at least, second only to the World Cup in importance.
In practice it has been hamstrung by poor scheduling, fluctuating formats and, most of all, uncertainty as to exactly what it is for. This year the competition is significant for the host nation and for the tournament’s 50-over-per-side format.
The Trophy continues to be dogged by cricket’s inability to produce rational schedules. In 2006, it was played only a few months before the World Cup. This time it is three months after one World Twenty20, played in England, and only six before the next, in the West Indies.
The issue for South Africa is not its ability to host a decent tournament. Although next year’s soccer World Cup will offer a new scale in challenges, it has already shown the ability to stage competitions — Rugby Union’s World Cup in 1995 and the Cricket version in 2003 — much larger than the Champions Trophy.
Its problem is on the field, turning potential into trophies. Although it is ranked number one in the world for five-day Test cricket, that standing was secured by the actions of others — England reducing previous leader Australia’s rating by beating them in the Ashes series.
When South Africa had the chance to take the lead through their own efforts earlier in the day, they lost at home to an Australian team they had only just beaten away.
In one-day competitions they habitually start well, only to trip up. The World Twenty20 in England this summer followed that pattern — though at least South Africa fell victim to an opponent, Pakistan, suddenly reincarnated as a force of nature, rather than adding to their list of bizarre and unlikely collapses.
They have won the Champions Trophy, but as an inaugural tournament so low key that at the final there was not a single journalist from either of the two competing teams, South Africa and West Indies.
Meanwhile, the 50-over, one-day format is caught between the greater variation and subtlety of the five-day Test matches and the quick-fire appeal and big money of Twenty20, neither one thing nor the other. To many it is now dull and outdated, the natural sacrificial victim if cricket ever gets around, as it certainly should, to rationalizing its incoherent and overcrowded schedules.
A tournament bringing together the world’s best players over a short, sharp competition over less than two weeks will be a test of its continuing appeal for players and fans.
Having only eight teams should, in theory, prevent massacres of the overmatched, such as the short, unhappy World Cup campaign by the United States in 2005.
But barring a last minute settlement, West Indies — which continues to be plagued by disputes between its players and its Cricket Board — will be represented by a team of replacements. It conceded nearly 400 runs to South Africa in a warm-up match Friday.
While there will be interest in whether players who emerged in the World Twenty20, like South Africa’s brilliant 20-year-old fast bowler Wayne Parnell and Pakistan’s still younger Mohammed Aamir, continue to progress, they may be overshadowed by the prodigals.
Shane Bond, sidelined while he was playing in the unofficial Indian Cricket League, is back to give added edge and venom to a New Zealand bowling attack otherwise heavily reliant on a clutch of fast-medium bowlers and the astute spin of captain Daniel Vettori.
Pakistan are rarely short of talent, but should still be strengthened by the return of Mohammad Asif, their most dangerous fast bowler, after a one-year drug ban.
This is a tough tournament to predict. The one-day ratings show Australia, South Africa and India are more or less tied at the top. Sri Lanka, South Africa, New Zealand and England form one four-team group.
West Indies, Pakistan, India and Australia are in the other. The top two in each proceeds to sudden-death semi-finals. A single off day at any stage may be fatal.