Report by Neil Robinson 22/09/04
No fireworks, no fanfares, just a quick round of handshakes and then ďwell, time to head indoors I think. Itís a bit chilly to be standing around out here.Ē This was the ECB/ICC idea of a grand opening to the second most prominent one-day competition in the world, and it, like the tournament itself so far, struggled to make much of an impression on the public consciousness. Only as the first round of matches drew to a close with a typically thrilling, passionate encounter between India and Pakistan at Edgbaston, and the prospect of an England v Australia semi-final approached, did anything approaching excitement thaw the chilled heart of this English autumn. Before that, cold weather, bowler-friendly conditions and the presence of four sides too weak to be here at all led to some one-sided games and left cricket far down the sporting pecking order.
In justification for hosting such a major tournament this late in the English season, the amateur meteorologists at the ECB boldly stated that the weather in September is often sunnier than it is in April or May. A statistical bit of spin there. Saying the weather may often be better than the insanely cold, wet conditions in which the English season typically gets underway really isnít so much of an inducement. Better than a mid-summer slot in July? I think not. Why could the Champions Trophy not have taken the place of the superfluous NatWest Series for one year? A combination of greed and contractual obligations to NatWest, themselves the result of a lack of foresight at best, seems the logical answer.
For pure cricketing reasons this tournament should never have been held in England at this time of year. Not so long ago a series of one-sided finals forced the ECB to acknowledge that holding the final of the 60-over knockout cup at Lordís in September meant that the side bowling first had an unfair advantage. Such a long game meant a 10.30 am start with the pitch still damp with dew. The final was rescheduled for August and the competition cut to 50 overs. Yet here we have a tournament of supposedly greater significance being played even further into September, with matches starting at 10.15 am and with a white ball. The dewey conditions were unfair enough with the red ball, but the white ball is universally acknowledged to offer greater help with seam and swing than the red. Itís an astonishing bit of bad-planning, which leads to the dismal conclusion that cricketing considerations come a very poor second to commercial ones for todayís cricket authorities.
And the result? Hardly a proper match worth speaking of in the whole group stage. If a side with a decent seam attack won the toss, they inserted the opposition and that was the game pretty much settled. The ultimate example being Australiaís exemplary demolition of the USA, the minnows bowled out for 65, the masters knocking off their paltry target in 7.5 overs. The match was wrapped up in about 4 hours, a fair proportion of which time was accounted for by the break between innings. Even when the mighty Aussies came up against their sternest challengers, New Zealand, a correct call by Ricky Ponting saw the Kiwis batting first. Some top class bowling by Glenn McGrath and Michael Kasprowicz soon had the Black Caps on the ropes, reeling at 89-8. Doughty resistance at the end from Chris Harris, Brandon McCullum and Daniel Vettori raised the New Zealand score to a more respectable 198-9, but the result was still never in doubt.
Before their evisceration by Australia, the USA had already had most of the stuffing knocked out of them by New Zealand in a crushing 210 run defeat (proving that you do at least need a decent bowling attack to make the most of bowling first in these conditions). Ponting later questioned what teams such as USA would have learned from their experience here. The habit of defeat is one possibility, and as any England captain of the 80s and 90s would tell you, thatís something you really donít want to learn at all.
The scheduling was clearly designed to get the pointless matches out of the way quickly, leaving the last group match in all four groups as a kind of play-off for the semi-finals. This is a concept familiar to students of other sports as a ďquarter-finalĒ, and itís an idea which might come in useful in future tournaments, preferably without the unexciting foreplay. Englandís own quarter-final in group B came against Sri Lanka, after both sides had disposed of a weak Zimbabwe side. The Zimbabwe team which toured here in 2003 struggled to cope with the damp seaming conditions at the start of the summer, this far less experienced outfit were never in with a chance and crumbled to a 152 run defeat against an England side merely going through the motions. They did rather better against Sri Lanka, who also found the conditions uncomfortably alien and were themselves weakened by the absence of Muralitharan. A fine all-round performance by Chigumbura, 57 with the bat and 3 for 37 with the ball, kept the margin of victory down to 4 wickets. But while Sri Lanka lost wickets regularly throughout their run-chase, Zimbabweís total of 191 was clearly inadequate.
Sri Lankaís best hope of beating England was by winning the toss and putting the hosts in. This they achieved, and they looked well placed with Solanki and Vaughan back in the hutch at 44-2. But without Murali, and despite the promising Maharoofís 10 overs for just 19 runs, they just werenít strong enough to restrict England in a rain affected match. Trescothick kept things ticking along nicely with a measured 66, Collingwood provided sensible support, but Englandís mainstay once more was Andrew Flintoff, who capped a magnificent summer with another gem of an innings, 104 off 91 balls with 3 sixes and 9 fours. His awesome power and increasing finesse were both to the fore as 78 runs came from the last 6 overs as play ran into the reserve day. A target of 252 was by no means beyond a talented Sri Lankan batting line-up, but they never recovered from two early strikes by Steve Harmison, and they were 49 runs short on the Duckworth-Lewis calculation when rain intervened once more.
Group C saw Kenya overcome easily by both India and Pakistan, who met up in the match of the tournament so far. The one bit of good planning that has gone into this tournament was to schedule this clash for Edgbaston, where the huge Asian population of Birmingham would make it an occasion to saviour. As well as the 21,000 packed into the ground, an estimated TV audience of 1 billion around the world witnessed another classic encounter between these two greatest of rivals. But it almost looked like another damp squib at the start. Put in by Pakistan, India slumped to 73-5 against a pace attack bowling with greater discipline under the auspices of coach Bob Woolmer. A sensible, cool 67 from Rahul Dravid, and some breezy late order strokes by Ajit Agarkar, helped India to 200 all out, but Pakistan looked to be well in the driving seat.
But India came right back at them with the new ball. Edgbaston will never match Calcutta in noise terms, but TV viewers might have been fooled for a while as the immensely impressive Irfan Pathan, such a hit on Indiaís last trip down under, removed the first three wickets with just 27 on the board. The experienced heads of Inzamam and Youhana steadied the ship with a stand of 75, but when Inzamam was caught behind off Agarkar, the wobbles began again. Razzaq clean bowled, Moin caught off Nehra a few overs later. 127 for 5 was an opening for India. It was such a similar situation to Pakistanís warm up match against Australia at Lordís. A strong partnership between Inzamam and Youhana takes them most of the way there, then Inzi gets out and Youhana goes on for a while but self destructs just when the game is almost won, taking his team down with him. Only this time he didnít. Instead of perishing trying to smash the ball into an adjacent county, he stayed there to the end, his 81 not out making him a clear man of the match in a narrow, 3 wicket win.
Hapless Bangladesh made up the numbers in Group D. South Africa bowled them out for 93 then cruised past them to win by 9 wickets. West Indies smashed 269-3, then bowled them out for just 131. So much for that. This set up an intriguing tussle at the Oval between a South African side struggling after a string of defeats which has seen them slide down the pecking order, and a West Indian side themselves hapless in the Test arena, but still dangerous opponents in the one-day game, where their mercurial individual talents are not so disadvantaged by a lack of overall cohesiveness. A keenly fought game saw Herschelle Gibbs fight back from a poor trot of form to hit 101 in South Africaís solid innings of 246 for 6, but 50s from Sarwan, Lara and Chanderpaul saw West Indies home by 5 wickets with 9 balls to spare.
So, despite being completely overshadowed in the British media by the new football season and the Ryder Cup, the Champions Trophy has finally stumbled, blinking and a little bewildered, into life. The sight of India and Pakistan at each otherís throats without it actually being World War III is always a gripping one, the defeat of Australia by a resurgent England in the first semi-final will have caused the England fans who didnít turn up to cheer their team on to gain new interest in the hope of being able to take out a major world cricket title, that not so long ago seemed as likely as the return of Margart Thatcher to politics.
Second Semi-final: Wednesday 22nd September, Rose Bowl: Pakistan v West Indies
Final: Saturday 25th September, The Oval