First things first: this is not a trophy for Champions. The only prerequisite for qualification is to not be Bangladesh or Zimbabwe – something that even England achieve with aplomb and a little verve.
Second things second: in the pages of sporting history, the “Champions” Trophy would barely warrant a footnote. We can’t remember anything about the last tournament – and it was only three hours ago that we looked it up on the internet. So a largely pointless competition lands on these shores and provides two-and-a-half weeks of cricketing distraction from endless talk about the weather.
However, there are plausible reasons why this could be a splendid tournament. Not least that it is the opposite of its elder brother; the World Cup drags on for months but with one game a day, the Champions Trophy is wrapped up in the time it takes us to play a game of Risk. The brevity of a tournament is perhaps not the selling-point that marketing men dream of, but when there is already too much cricket in the calendar and spectators can easily be turned-off by limited overs matches, it is better to wrap it up quickly and hope for some quality action, rather than extend its length ridiculously. Related to the issue of quality, another plus point about the tournament is that it is limited to the top eight teams. Weeks of mismatches to eliminate the minnows are thus avoided (although it is worth mentioning that we feel the World Cup ought to continue to feature non-Test teams). Moreover, the sides involved all look fairly well-matched, meaning there should be some close matches and a degree of excitement and/or tension throughout. Or so we hope – otherwise South Africa will romp home in every match until they lose by 90 runs to the West Indies in the final.
In time-honoured tradition, we start our preview with Group A.
Australia have already been covered by our resident Aussie bloke here. Assuming no injuries and no comedy calamities that divide the squad (e.g. Shane Watson being dropped for forgetting his kit), their team will feature a couple of potential match-winners in Watto and Mitchell Starc, supported by a mix of the good, the bad and George Bailey.
England start as at least joint-favourites with most bookmakers, but we assume those odds were calculated before their most recent performances against New Zealand. Their tactics will be agreed in advance – and inscribed upon a stone tablet, locked inside a safe and buried under a pile of lead and cement – with the majority of the team being the same as in Test matches. Expect caution, especially in the top order which feels cumbersome without Kevin Pietersen, and a hope that their reserve players aren’t called upon. The fitness of Stuart Broad and Steven Finn, indeed all their front-line attack, will be crucial if they are to challenge, which given the home conditions, they really ought to. The game against Sri Lanka will be particularly interesting, because it could feasibly be their only match in a period of 12 months that isn’t against Australia or New Zealand.
In limited over tournaments, New Zealand are never the bride, always the bubbly friend of the bride who gets so pissed on Pimm’s that she does the splits on the dancefloor before the first dance is over. They will be ebullient entering the tournament on the back of beating England, despite certain cricket websites completely writing them off. As author of that writing-off, I’ll maintain indignantly that they’ve too many mediocre players to really win this competition – but freely admit that every other squad has a similar lack of quality in depth (*cough* Ravi *cough* Bopara).
The fourth team in the group are the Sri Lankans. We could probably copy and paste any preview from the past five years to use, such is the familiarity of their squad and their strengths and weaknesses. At least these days their batting is not quite so reliant on the Dilshan/Jayawardene/Sangakkara axis, although captain Angelo Mathews still seems to fall into the ‘promising’ category rather than ‘world-class’ bracket. Their bowling should be reasonable, although finding 50 decent overs in English conditions will be a challenge – but one capable of being offset by an over or two of Lasith Malinga’s yorkers.
Each team to win one of their first two matches; England and Australia to qualify.