Marco Trevisiol, Ganesh Venkat & Martyn Corrin
Group A features holders Australia, subcontinental rivals India and Pakistan, and a shadow West Indies side. With Australia perhaps not the force they once were, yet still strong,, it seems it will be two from three to go through from this group whilst the West Indies should
be routinely trounced.
A lot has changed for Australia since the last major one-day tournament - the 2007 World Cup - where they were totally dominant as they demoralised every opponent they came across.
Within a couple of years of that tournament, several top one-day players who were key figures in that triumph - Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden, Andrew Symonds, Brad Hogg, Adam Gilchrist - have departed the international scene. Therefore, it's not surprising that Australia's one-day performances have rarely reached the same heights since.
Michael Hussey observed recently that Australia has adopted a more 'working-class' style of play where individual brilliance won't win matches, but a genuine team effort with everybody playing their part.
This is best evidenced by Australia's opening batting situation. For years the likes of Gilchrist and Hayden struck fear into the hearts of opponents with their ability to destroy attacks in the space of an hour with relentless attack and aggression. In contrast in the recent England series while Shane Watson and Tim Paine were solid, they had a style faintly reminiscent of Australia's opening batting in the Bob Simpson era of the 1990s (albeit at a faster rate); watchful early on and then increasingly aggressive once the new ball was seen off and they settled in. Watson and Paine may not be able to win a match by batting together for 20 overs as Gilchrist and Hayden could but they can definitely set up the base for a win.
Australia's batting is probably their weakness in this tournament as it's too over-reliant on Ricky Ponting. To be sure, even after 15 years on the international scene he's still a force to be reckoned with; as he showed in the recent England series he is a master at playing aggressive, match-defining innings. But when he's performed moderately - as was the case against South Africa earlier this year - the other batsmen were often exposed as incapable of delivering an innings of substance under pressure.
Also, Australia's loss in the final match of their England series was noteworthy in that it was caused by a major batting collapse against spin. Against South Africa and Pakistan earlier this year their playing of spin was their Achilles heel, even of the part-time variety. Regularly they would get bogged down and lose wickets to spin in the middle overs of an innings. Too often batsmen were unable to fight through such tough situations and meekly succumbed, as occurred on Sunday. With group matches against Pakistan and India and high doses of challenging spin awaiting them, Australia's batsmen are going to have to show more application.
Australia's strong suit is in their bowling. The successful return of Brett Lee in the England series was highly significant. Despite not getting much new-ball swing, he was a constant threat due to his sheer pace and guile. He was badly missed in Australia's one-day lineup last season.
Lee paired with Mitchell Johnson (who has been far more consistent in his one-day career compared with Tests) is potentially a lethal new ball combination, especially in conditions where swing and seam are available. But judging by the England series Australia's preferred plan is to have Nathan Bracken being paired with Lee which seems a timid and misguided move.
Bracken has been a fine one-day bowler but his performances have noticeably tapered off in the past 12 months. Especially so with the new ball where he's rarely been a wicket-taking threat; this may be in part because his pace has dropped a tad and he was never more than medium-fast at his peak. He still has a role to play but it's in the later sections of the innings like when the batting powerplay is taken.
An opening new-ball combination of Lee and Mitchell Johnson could be potentially devastating, especially in conditions where the ball swings. There seems to be a belief amongst the leadership this is a high-risk strategy as both can go for plenty of runs but it's a risk that will probably have to be taken as Australia lacks matchwinners in other sections of their side.
Another strength in Australia's bowling is Nathan Hauritz whose off-spinners have come on in leaps and bounds in the one-day format in the past 6 months. He's been helped in part by a change in mindset by selectors, who previously seemed to believe (incorrectly) that part-timers like Michael Clarke and David Hussey could fill the spinner's spot when required. His flight and changes of pace were excellent during the England series and his domination of the in-form Andrew Strauss was a particular highlight.
While Sunday's loss was disappointing in that it prevented a clean sweep of the England series, it did help clarify Australia's team structure for the Champions Trophy. Before the match it was unclear whether Michael Hussey or Cameron White would get into the top 6 but after Hussey's fine effort when wickets were tumbling around him and White's meek dismissal, the Victorian captain is almost certain to be squeezed out despite his Man of the Series award.
As well Ben Hilfenhaus's disastrous opening spell on Sunday has almost certainly meant he will be a spectator throughout the tournament. While it was a challenging ask to play after a couple of weeks on the sidelines, it was a disappointingly sloppy effort highlighted by an absurdly large amount of no-balls and gifted runs. It's not unreasonable to suggest that if he bowled to expectations, Australia would've won the match.
Overall, while Australia lack the brilliance of recent years they are a genuine chance of retaining the Champions Trophy.
Players to watch:
Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson
After their debacle at the T20 world cup in England earlier this year, India return to South Africa, their most favorite venue when it comes to world tournaments.India finished runners-up to Australia in the 2003 ODI World cup final and went one step further in the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, when they beat Pakistan to clinch the title. India have had a long lay-off after their dismal T20 campaign in England and went on to win the Triangular ODI series in Sri Lanka. After having re-charged their batteries and fresh from that win this Champions trophy should be an ideal launching pad for some of India's next generation cricketers like Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina to take on the mantle from the Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. India Should feel quietly confident to qualify for the semi-finals from a group consisting of Australia, Pakistan and a third-string West Indies squad.
Led by M.S.Dhoni, India has a nice blend of steady,attacking and explosive batsmen.The incomparable Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir can provide rollicking starts. Tendulkar's performances in Sri Lanka were dazzling and his crucial knock in the finals ensured that India registered their their fourth victory in ODI finals in 21 attempts since 2000 and their first trophy in Sri Lanka since 1998.It is indeed staggering to note that Tendulkar has now scored nine international centuries and seven 90s since May 2007 and they have a batsman who reminds everyone of the Tendulkar of the 1990's.
Although the absence of Virendar Shewag is a big blow the welcome return of Dravid to the Indian side has added some much needed stability to the young and inexperienced middle order which has been shaky against hostile, fast,short-pitched bowling. Having failed to impress in the Tri-series Dravid would want to set the record straight in South Africa which should ensure that Dravid will be in India's plans for the 2011 ODI world cup. Dravid Would be followed by Suresh Raina, who would like to make an impact after his indifferent form in the T20 world cup. The imperious Yuvraj Singh is followed by the hard-hitting Yusuf Pathan. Dhoni has developed his reputation as a cool and composed finisher and this Indian middle order would be a hard nut to crack.However, their biggest downfall could be their complacency and the huge expectations from the fanatic fans. But having lost the T20 world cup one would expect the pressure to be less on the Indians and one can only hope that they can perform better than what they did in England. Abhishek Nayar and Dinesh Karthik are the other two specialist batsmen in the side and they are no slouch with the bat either and should come in handy when the need arises.
It would be an ideal opportunity for Ashish Nehra to cement his place as the leader of the pack after his come back to this Indian ODI side. However the absence of Zaheer Khan makes the Indian attack a little Inexperienced, with the likes of Ishant Sharma, RP Singh and Praveen Kumar who have the propensity to leak runs under pressure which was evident in the two games against Sri Lanka in the recently concluded Tri-series. In the spin bowling department Harbhajan Singh and the presence of the exciting leg spinner Amit Mishra should compensate for the lack of reliable seamers. Harbhajan has improved by leaps and bounds with his bowling in ODI cricket and is probably bowling at his very best. With his five for in the Compaq cup finals against Sri Lanka, he is one bowler Dhoni can count on to deliver the goods.
India might have perhaps erred in not selecting the exciting left arm spinner Pragyan Ojha. But with the likes of Pathan, Yuvraj, Tendulkar and Raina turning their arms, India should be adequately served in the bowling department. India have always been a suspect side when it comes to fielding, despite some live-wires like Raina, Karthik and Yuvraj prowling the 30 yard circle, India have been sloppy more than once and have been let down badly by their fielding and catching.
With a steady and a solid batting order, supported by a decent bowling attack and led by the astute Dhoni, India should have little trouble disposing of Pakistan and The West Indies in this group. The Australia match could prove to be the litmus test for the Indians. Nevertheless one would expect India to be one of the semi-finalists and If Dhoni can repeat his magic touch and the cricketing gods of South Africa smile on India once again, they could go all the way to win the champions trophy for the second time.
Players to Watch:
Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh
West Indies have a great record in the champions trophy, winning the tournament once and finishing as runners-up twice. They had the odds-stacked against them when they won it in 2004 in England in utter darkness.Nevertheless South Africa is not one of their favorite hunting grounds and in contrast to India's record here West Indies's record in South Africa is hardly inspiring.They did not taste any kind of success in the two world events held here.Although external factors played a huge part in the 2003 World cup, they failed to get past the first round in both the 2003 ODI world cup and in the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007.Added to the fact that they have not won many matches in South Africa and with probably a team that at best could be called third-string, West Indies face a huge task to avoid embarrassment in the hands of the traditional power houses India, Pakistan and Australia. They could be called the minnows of the tournament and that was proved right when in the warm-ups they failed to defeat a cape cobras second string team and allowed South Africa to rack up almost 400 runs against them.
West Indies played some inspired cricket in the T20 world up in England. Although what followed was heart-wrenching for West Indies cricket, when the board and the players association were at logger heads which ensured that the best team was not selected for the Bangladesh series. They were whitewashed in both the ODI's and Tests with the absence of their star players Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shiv Chanderpaul and Dwayne Bravo.
There was more bad blood as the impasse continued, which ensured that the best team would not be fielded for the champions trophy as well. There were concerns from various corners if West Indies are devaluing the tournament and should Bangladesh have taken their place instead. Nevertheless they are here and as their captain Floyd Reifer has oozed confidence by saying " We will do the six million people of the Caribbean proud at the ICC [Champions Trophy] tournament." However that looks nothing but an empty rhetoric.
Led by Reifer who averages a Dismal 16.20 in ODI's, They have a squad consisting of proven international failures and some real green horns. Dale Richards and Devon Smith are decent batsman at best and we have to wait and see how they fare against top quality bowling. Travis Dowlin looked solid against Bangladesh, but this will be a real test for him when he faces the likes of Umar Gul, Harbhajan Singh and Brett Lee. Reifer is seen as nothing but a loyal servant to the WICB and he has a point or two to prove that he fits in international cricket.Darren Sammy and Dave Bernard are the two players who can harbor any hopes of making to the West Indies side when this dispute is settled and they will look to capitalize on their gains made in the Bangladesh series, especially Dave Bernard who showed his prowess with the bat when he fought lone battles in vain for the West Indies in the Test series. Andre Fletcher, Kieron Powell and Chadwick Walton will be lucky to get a game.However Powell is talked off highly in the Caribbean and if he can show his mettle in the international arena he should be some one to look out for in the near future.
West Indies bowling is totally inexperienced with Daren Powell pulling out due to an Injury. However the impressive Bajan Kemar Roach is an exciting prospect to look forward to along with Antiguan Gavin Tonge. Roach impressed one and all with his raw pace and hostile bowling during his Test debut.He followed that up with six wickets in the second Test against Bangladesh and was one of the shining lights in an otherwise dismal series for the West Indies. The bouncy South African wickets should suit his style and he should relish the opportunity to bowl to the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting. The support cast for these two are Tino Best,Kevin McLean and Nikita Miller. Apart from Nikita Miller who impressed in a few games he played , Best and McLean are not much to shout about. Best has been erratic,inconsistent and wild in the past and lacks temperament and control both physically and mentally and McLean is untested.The less said about their fielding the better. This West Indian team is nothing but a rag tag assembly of cricketers parading as international players. It does not take a genius to see how the West Indies can avoid embarrassment.
The already beleaguered West Indian fans are bracing up for yet another humiliation which could put more pressure on the WICB to resolve the dispute before the Australian tour and re-instate the star players and select a team on merit. If by a long shot this West Indies team does pull off a miraculous upset, the board will not hesitate to play hardball and that will make West Indies, as a cricket team to continue to plumb the depths of oblivion.
Players to Watch:
Darren Sammy , Kemar Roach and Dave Bernard
Younis Khan's Pakistan head into the Champions Trophy on the back of an extraordinary victory in the Twenty20 World Championships in June. This is the tournament which they were initially set to host, albeit last year. The situation is Pakistan is heavily documented across the web and media, but there can be no doubt that the Twenty20 victory earlier in the year lifted the people no end. It is a big ask to see them replicate that victory in the longer version of limited overs cricket but they are a team that you can seldom afford to write off.
Pakistan's main strength is their bowling, but their batting is packed with talent. Imran Nazir and wicket-keeper Kamran Akmal will open the batting, both are quick hitters, particularly Akmal, although neither is renowned for their ability to stick around for too long. Their job will be to get Pakistan off to a brisk start. Former captain Shoaib Malik should bat at three, he is a fine one-day player and can perform a variety of roles. At three he will most likely play a steady innings whilst those around him try and blast it away, but he has expressed a desire and willingness to open and could also do a job lower down the order if required. His offspin bowling is also a handy tool. Malik would generally be followed out to bat by Younis Khan, but he will miss Pakistan's first game with a hairline fracture to the little finger on his right hand. He should be fit to return for the rest of the tournament though, but in the meantime Shahid Afridi will take over the reins. Otherwise, expect Misbah ul-Haq and Umar Akmal to complete the middle order.
Afridi as captain is not necessarily something which could or would have been foreseen just a short time ago, but his reputation has grown in tandem with his cricketing maturity in recent times, and he is Pakistan's talisman. His one-day record may be nothing to write home about, but statistics will never tell you enough about a player like Afridi. Batting down the order at six or seven he can be relied on for quick runs, and his versatility with the ball is invaluable. Afridi was arguably the inspiration behind Pakistan's Twenty20 victory in England earlier this year and if they are to prosper here they will need him on form.
The frontline spin will be provided by Saeed Ajmal, an offspinner who is still in the early days of his international career, despite being 31 years old. Thus far he has proved to be a highly economical bowler who isn't afraid to use his doosra. He troubled Australia in the United Arab Emirates and viewers of the Twenty20 World Cup will remember the role he played there, and the overs he bowls in tandem with Afridi will not be easy for opposition batsmen, especially the rookies from West Indies. Ajmal will probably be joined in the attack by three seamers, Mohammed Aamir, aged just seventeen, is a hugely exciting prospect and another member of the team who forged himself a reputation in England in the northern summer. He is a left-arm bowler, and has taken nine wickets in his five ODIs to date. His short ball will most likely trouble batsmen here, in contrast to the toe-crushing abilities of Umar Gul. Gul is a tremendous fast-bowler in both formats of limited overs cricket, and goes into the competition as one of the world's best death bowlers. And as if those three frontline bowlers weren't enough to give the batsmen around the world a headache, they will be joined by Naved-ul-Husan. He is likely to be more expensive than his compatriots but is a genuine swing bowler who troubles batsmen with late swing.
It is also, of course, worth mentioning that Mohammed Asif will start the tournament on the sidelines for Pakistan, after completing a one-year drugs ban. Once regarded as one of the brightest talents in cricket, it is testament to the strength of Pakistan's attack that Asif will not walk straight back into the side; Pakistan are a very, very good bowling side, and if their batsmen manage to get it right then a repeat of their Twenty20 success is not out of the question.
Players to watch:
Kamran Akmal, Shahid Afridi, Umar Gul