India skipper Virat Kohli takes a catch during a practice session at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London on Friday. Pic/AFP
The original concept for the Champions Trophy (apart from raising funds for the ICC), was to hold a prestige 50-over tournament. The 2017 version has all the makings of exactly that with four really powerful teams and the other four all capable of causing an upset.
Hovering over the tournament is an edginess created by the recent tragedy in Manchester. This diabolical act will have an effect on both players and fans. The English are renowned for their stoicism in times of adversity and this trait will be fully tested under the circumstances. Some players will cope better than others, but the ones who will fare best are those who can overcome any anxieties and maintain their focus on cricket while they're out on the field.
The Big Four
The four really strong squads are hosts England, defending champions India and perennial competitors Australia and South Africa.
The Australians are currently embroiled in a divisive pay dispute with their Board but the altercation has only served to unite the players.
The sense that this dispute will further galvanise the Australian team was reinforced by skipper Steve Smith, when he indicated that winning the Champions Trophy would help the players in their negotiations with the Board.
Ever since hitting rock bottom with an early exit from the 2015 World Cup, England's fifty over cricket has been on an upward trend. They appear to be peaking perfectly for this tournament but they'll need to ensure they don't succumb to stage fright in front of an expectant home audience.
England has never won a major fifty over tournament and with their powerful batting line-up and strong pace attack, this is a great opportunity to erase that glitch in their record. In the 2013 version, England lost to India in a rain-affected final and in 2017, the Virat Kohli led side will again be a major challenge for the hosts.
Kohli's men have tuned up for this tournament with a glut of T20 games in the IPL. This may turn out to be a good preparation, especially when followed by a couple of 50-over warm-up games to get the mind fully attuned to the longer version. T20 cricket ensures batsmen are looking for runs and of late, bowlers have focused more on taking wickets; the ideal mind-set for both facets of the 50-over game.
India doesn't have the pace of the three other top bowling sides but they do possess a well-balanced attack, capable of taking wickets in any conditions. South Africa is the fourth powerhouse team and even without the injured Dale Steyn they possess a strong pace attack. They also have the wily leg-spinner Imran Tahir seeking wickets in the middle overs, which is a crucial part of playing 50-over cricket successfully.
The South African batting line-up is also powerful but the team are yet to overcome the knock-out stage hoodoo that dogs them in tournaments. Despite assurances from skipper AB de Villiers in the 2015 World Cup that this was a thing of the past, they've done nothing to brush the monkey off their back.
An ingrained conservatism, especially surrounding their tactics in the field, has hurt South Africa in the past and they need to shed that approach to win this tournament.
Can't take Pak, NZ lightly While the winner will probably come from those four sides, none of the favourites can afford to take teams like Pakistan and New Zealand lightly.
As always, New Zealand are a solid outfit but they lack the power-house players of Australia and England, both of whom are in the Kiwis' group.
Pakistan has the pace attack to worry India and South Africa in group B but their batting is brittle and lacks the firepower necessary to unsettle the top sides.
Both Sri Lanka and an improving Bangladesh will be competitive but they won't win enough matches to qualify for the knockout stage.
Throughout its history the Champions Trophy has struggled to gain traction. However, a semi-final line-up of England, Australia, India and South Africa promises something we don't see often enough in 50-over cricket; a highly competitive and entertaining tournament.
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