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Cricket Needs its Grand Occasions

23 September 2009.

Our sport hardly has the concept of majors. It can start by making the Champions Trophy a destination, not a journey.

Hard-pressed hosts have been trying to present the Champions Trophy as an eagerly awaited tournament and part of a great tradition. By rights it ought to be an easy sell. After all, the top eight nations are taking part, and almost all of the great players are involved. Moreover, the hosts have an excellent chance of taking the spoils. Although it’s a close-run thing and the position changes rapidly, South Africa are the top-ranked 50-over team, and Graeme Smith has at his disposal a wondrously varied collection of players.

Certainly that dreadful old rogue Hendrik Verwoerd would be amazed. For that matter it’s an exciting time in South African sport, with the rugby team retaining a first position years after its World Cup triumph, and the soccer World Cup mere months away. It’s a far cry from the low expectations that accompanied the country as it embarked upon the long and perilous journey from central command to democracy.

Angelo Mathews

Angelo Mathews batting.
Photo © Amal316, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

With so many brilliant players appearing in such a short period and with no weak teams invited and no dud matches anticipated, the Champions Trophy ought to be the topic on the tip of every cricketing tongue. After all Sachin Tendulkar, one of the greatest sportsmen of his generation, and in prime form after his stirring hundred in Colombo (the 44th of his ODI career, 40 of them scored as an opener and 28 compiled away from home), is about to try his luck against Dale Steyn.

Likewise Ricky Ponting is eager to lead his reconstructed side to success. Almost inevitably Australia are the reigning champions, but those were different days, when Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden ran amok.

Nor is it only a matter of watching a few shining knights of the game. The entire Sri Lankan side, sometimes patronised, is attractive. Sri Lanka is supposedly at peace with itself. That cricket remained largely untouched by the conflict is a credit to all concerned. Now Kumar Sangakkara, intelligent, capable and sometimes provocative, presides over a wonderful collection of proven seniors and youngsters. To watch the recent matches against India was to observe the old hands still battling away and to find wholehearted and unfazed youngsters emerging, including Angelo Mathews and Thilina Kandamby, who follows in the footsteps of Arjuna Ranatunga.

Cricket has been extraordinarily lucky that Sri Lanka have emerged as such a powerhouse. Bangladesh ought to send emissaries to study the methods used. The cricketing politics may have been dubious, but the cricketers themselves have provided outstanding leadership. The only bad patch came in the match-fixing period, but Sri Lanka were hardly alone in that. Mercifully, too, the best among them remained intact.

Pakistan are another side bound to catch the eye. Pakistan cricket is a law unto itself. Against most expectations, and with a typically adroit and opportunistic approach, the team won the World Twenty20 in 2009. Although lacking recent exposure, the side has plenty of experience and all sorts of points to prove. None of their rivals have as many heroes and villains in their line-up. Most of the players manage to be both at the same time. Pakistan is not a side for half-measures, nor is it shy of victory. It’s a reminder that a representative team is an expression of the national culture. It might not reveal everything about a country’s psyche, but the way a sporting team goes about its work offers an insight. It’s not the finishing that tells the tale, it’s the starting point.

Of course this Champions Trophy has had its setbacks. Although far from blameless, the ICC has been unlucky with its tournaments in recent years. For example, the last two World Cups have been blighted – by a boycott and the death of a coach.

Without Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and Andrew Flintoff, England’s batting looks second-rate. Incomparably worse, West Indies have sent a second-string team, an insult to the host, the game and spectators. It’s high time this cricket community was called to account. The ICC ought to have withdrawn their invitation. Australia ought to cancel West Indies’ forthcoming tour and ask someone else to fill the gap. The incompetence of the administration and the selfishness and arrogance of the players ought not to be tolerated a moment longer. A great tradition has been betrayed. Nor can past players be exonerated. Most of them spend their time swanning around, milking the system. The current problems began 20 years ago, in the conduct of headstrong heroes. Bad habits took hold, and despite the efforts of a few good men they remain intact. It’s a cultural malaise that involves the team and their surrounds. The only way forward is to split up the West Indies and rely on national pride to restore dignity.

Even the second rung of countries have their complications. Uganda has made enormous progress in the last few years, leapfrogging many nations along the way. And then came a heavy blow as half the Under-19 team absconded while taking part in an event in Canada. It’s enough to make grown men cry. The ICC’s attempt to spread the game deserves not the unimpressive cynicism of the narrow-minded but the praise of the enlightened. In the end cricket endures because it is an extraordinarily good game, and a bond between nations that have so much to fight about and so much in common.

Accordingly a few headaches are to be expected whenever cricket nations get together. If anything, this Champions Trophy has fewer than might have been feared. Despite the bombings and wars, and struggles between first and third worlds, and the ever-changing balance of power as the dollar weakens and BRIC flexes its muscles, the top eight teams have reported for duty, though West Indies is present in name only.

The Champions Trophy is struggling to capture the imagination. Not even the arrival of the great players and the powerful teams has been enough to send a frisson of excitement around the cricketing world. As far as most observers are concerned, it’s just another tournament.

And that is the problem. It is just another tournament, one among many. Slowly the Champions Trophy is finding its feet, establishing its identity.

This year’s version will be the best to date, not that it has much to beat. It will be fast and furious and will last less than a fortnight. So why the downbeat atmosphere? Partly it is that followers of the game are not convinced about the relevance of the tournament. What does it signify? Everyone understands that a World Cup produces a world champion. Even that is more confusing in cricket than other games because the supposed champions merely have bragging rights in a secondary form of the game. No other sport bestows remotely as much status upon a compressed format. Still, they are champions of some sort. But the winners of the Champions Trophy, what are they? Not world champions, to be sure. And what remains? The only thing to be won is a trophy.

But there is another reason for the lack of feverish anticipation. The period beforehand was not marked by preparation and speculation. Sri Lanka and India were playing 50-over matches in Colombo. Until Sunday night England and Australia were still bemusingly going hammer and tongs in Durham, the local stronghold. Then they all hop onto a plane and play the next gig, the Champions Trophy. Our cricketers resemble a rock band dashing from concert to concert. Accordingly it is difficult to create a sense of occasion. Everyone in South Africa and elsewhere has been talking about the forthcoming soccer World Cup for years. Comparatively, cricket lacks anticipation.

Nor is the matter easily resolved. Other sports can limit the number of internationals because the club or provincial competitions can sustain interest. Soccer and rugby are in this happy position. Until the advent of the IPL, cricket was almost dead domestically, in financial terms anyhow. And the IPL is an exception in that it’s really an international competition in disguise. Cricket depends on international stars and matches. Nothing else makes money or holds the audience. Accordingly the game comes under pressure to arrange as many internationals as possible. Inevitably the currency is compromised. The same thing has been happening to the US dollar.

The Champions Trophy can flourish. It has a different role than the World Cup, which is used to encourage rising nations and stimulate the successful. Cricket has been lucky that India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have all lifted the Cup. The Champions Trophy is reserved for the elite. Every match is a corker. But it cannot merely be another stop on the train journey. It needs to become a destination. To that end, cricket needs to improve its programming. The old idea of every nation for itself, and more recently every man for himself, is unsustainable, for then the trivial and the telling become confused. Cricket needs to isolate and highlight its grand occasions and reduce the distractions.

Usually the Indians are blamed for everything (a policy once pursued in the Wild West), but England and Australia have been the worst offenders this time round. They have given the Champions Trophy little respect. It’s a question of priorities. Cricket has lots of tournaments but lacks the concept of majors. It’s high time that changed. Tripling the ranking points for World Cups and Champions Trophy matches might help. After all, it’s rare for cricket to get together. All the more reason to celebrate when it does happen.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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