June 7, 2013

Everyone's a winner

But no one will win. Probably. Of course, someone has to, in the end. Anyway: the official Confectionery Stall preview

Welcome to the one-day-late official Confectionery Stall 2013 ICC Champions Trophy preview. This is an emotional moment for me - this will probably be the last Champions Trophy preview I will ever write. Unless I choose to re-preview the tournament in three weeks' time with the benefit of hindsight. Or unless the ICC decides at some point in the future that a condensed, well-formatted 50-over tournament between the world's best teams is a good idea. And finds a way to make the world's cricketing public genuinely care who wins it.

Group A

Potential winners. They have the Champions League pedigree, having won, as far as anyone can remember, the previous two incarnations. Wherever and whenever they were. The Baggy Greens will be eager to add a third gong in this final incarnation of the much-maligned tournament, in order to keep the trophy for all eternity, as some material proof with which to convince sceptical future generations that the Champions Trophy did once exist. They have the best team bowling average in ODIs between the top-eight nations since the 2011 World Cup, and the second-best economy rate.

However, they will probably not win the tournament. In their final warm-up match, they were clouted about, then skittled for nothing, by India, exposing a thin batting line-up that is over-reliant on the sporadically effective Warner and Watson, and the worryingly back-crocked Clarke. They now wear a cloak of vincibility.

Potential winners. Despite their recent defeat to New Zealand - properly thumped in two games in which they were missing two key prongs of their bowling attack, and thus two key prongs of their overall strategy - they have a good record in top-eight ODIs since their supine World Cup exit in Sri Lanka (won 23, lost 15, the second-best win percentage in such games, behind India). Despite the unquenchable grumblings about the ploddiness of their top order, statistically England's batting line-up is in the top three for both average and strike rate over the last two years, with similar figures to India and South Africa, and significantly better numbers than everyone else. They are experienced, playing at home, full of wicket-taking threat, and favoured by the two-ball ICC strategy that still seems frankly weird.

However, they will probably not win the tournament. Their batting line-up, without the injured Pietersen, is over-dependent on the often-decisive performances of Eoin Morgan - who averages 60 in ODI victories, and 23 in defeats - and on the unproven but explosive Jos Buttler for acceleration, and they could struggle in any sizeable chase unless they adopt greater flexibility and initiative in their batting strategy. They are the team least likely to balls up a chase of 230, but one of the less likely sides to knock off 320.

New Zealand
Potential winners. They have bowlers who can thrive in English conditions, and hard-hitting batsmen in form. Martin Guptill might have been one of the least effective Test batsmen of the last five years, but he has shown the extent of his talent in the last two weeks. Taylor and McCullum can also transform an innings in the blink of an eye (provided that eye takes 15 or 20 minutes to shut and open again).

However, they will probably not win the tournament. They have had a good 2013 in away ODIs, and played some excellent all-round cricket against England. But they have still won only six of their 20 completed ODIs against other top-eight nations since their World Cup semi-final defeat to Sri Lanka, and lack depth with the bat.

Sri Lanka
Potential winners. They have a good balance of youth and experience. They have an impressive recent record of reaching tournament finals. And they have the still-spectacular Lasith Malinga.

However, they will probably not win the tournament. They have a bad balance of the unproven and the over the hill. They have an unimpressive recent record of losing tournament finals. And they have several bowlers considerably less spectacular than Malinga.


Potential winners. They have the batting firepower to decimate any bowling attack. As they have just demonstrated in Cardiff. Their entire top seven can score fast and hit boundaries. They can dominate from the start, and recover from a crisis. They won the World Cup with a fairly somnolent fielding side, but the recent influx of new blood - and outflux of old blood - has made them a significantly more dynamic and vigorous side in the field. Ravindra Jadeja is continuing his impressive transformation from highly paid miracle of coiffeuring to significant international all-round cricketer, and MS Dhoni remains the most influential player in the one-day game.

However, they will probably not win the tournament. The have the bowling firepower to be decimated by any batting line-up. As they have just demonstrated in Cardiff. To win one tournament with only a moderately effective bowling line-up was impressive. To win two would be close to miraculous.

Potential winners. Saeed Ajmal is ODI cricket's most effective bowler. Since the 2011 World Cup, 46 bowlers have bowled 100 or more overs in ODIs between the eight Champions Trophy teams. Ajmal is on the medal podium for total wickets taken, bowling average, strike rate and economy rate. In the 30 innings he has bowled, the Faisalabad Flummoxer has taken 60 scalps (silver medal, behind Malinga, who has taken 81 in 49 innings), at an average of 18.33 (gold medal), with an economy rate of exactly 4 per over (bronze medal, behind Mohammad Hafeez [3.72] and Sunil Narine [3.75]), and a strike rate of a wicket every 27.4 balls (silver, behind Mitchell Starc [23.3]).

Junaid Khan adds further penetration, and Hafeez is so miserly that the late Charles Dickens is rumoured to be considering coming out of his deathly retirement to write a moralistic novella about him.

However, they will probably not win the tournament. Their batting line-up is as volcanic as a meringue - they have been comfortably the slowest-scoring of the top-eight teams over the last couple of years, and of the selected squad, only Jamshed has scored at faster than 80 runs per 100 balls in ODIs against the teams in this tournament since the last World Cup. This balance might win them the four or five games needed to take the trophy. But it probably will not.

South Africa
Potential winners. Despite their dismal start in Cardiff, a scatty performance littered with schoolboy errors, injuries and unfulfilled potential, they still have the capability to win four games in a row. Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers are currently the world's two best batsmen - first and third respectively in the Test rankings, second and first in the ODI standings. This decade, between them they average 69 at a strike rate of 98 - per team innings, their joint contribution averages out at 111 runs off 113 balls, which is a handy contribution in anyone's book. Unless that person's book is not about cricket, which in itself would raise questions about their priorities in life.

However, South Africa will probably not win the tournament. Outside their two world-leading modern greats, their batting is unproven and error-prone. Their bowling is overly dependent on Dale Steyn, who (a) has generally been much less of a force in ODIs that the regular match-shaper he is in the five-day game, and (b) is currently injured; Morne Morkel, who (a) has a high-class ODI record, but (b) is currently injured; and Vernon Philander, who (a) has generally been much less of a force in the one-day format than he is in Test and first-class cricket, and (b) is not in the squad.

West Indies
Potential winners. They have proven match-winners throughout their line-up, and the erratic Kieron Pollard has shown much-improved ODI form over the last couple of years, averaging 37 against top-eight opposition since the World Cup (at the end of which his career ODI average versus the top teams was a less than devastating 17). They won their last international tournament in spectacular style, and have Chris Gayle, one of the most destructive players in the history of the game, and a man who seems to enjoy the big stage. And who seems particularly to enjoy putting the ball as far away from that big stage as the physics of willow will allow. Like the team, he is sporadically dangerous. But in a two-week, five-game shootout, sporadic danger can be enough, as their World Twenty20 victory showed.

However, they will probably not win the tournament. They have proven match-losers throughout their line-up. No batsman in their squad averages more than Pollard's 37 over the last two years against top-eight opponents, and Gayle's recent ODI form has been horrific - he has scored 114 runs in his last 11 ODI innings, with only one hundred (and an average of 29) in the format since January 2009. Narine is a very effective limited-overs bowler, but other than he, only Darren Sammy has managed to keep his economy rate below 5 over the last two years. They have a rotten record against everyone other than New Zealand in that time - won seven, tied one, lost 19, against top-eight sides without a capital Z in their name - whilst posting the lowest collective batting average, and second lowest run rate.

● So who will win? In a groundbreaking scientific experiment on Wednesday, I predicted the tournament through the medium of tossing a coin. A humble, verifiable British one-pence coin - a response to the ruptures that questionable megamoney has inflicted on the game in recent times.

The results were as follows:

A thrilling Group A came down to the final round of matches with all four teams on one win each. England defeated New Zealand by one head to zero tails, whilst Australia were sent packing by an impressive Sri Lanka, who recovered from a first-match loss to win two must-win tosses in a row to progress to the semi-finals (as group winners, after winning a sudden-death flip against England).

In Group B, India maintained their impressive pre-tournament form by crushing South Africa and West Indies, each time by one head to zero tails, before losing a dead rubber to the already eliminated Pakistan. The Proteas shook off their "chokers" tag by impressively bouncing back from their disastrous start, beating Pakistan, then seeing off West Indies in the decisive final group match.

However, that tag was dangled around their necks once more in the semi-finals, where de Villiers' men were pitted against the in-form Sri Lankans. Once again, the pressure told, the sinews tightened, and they came up agonisingly short in a coin-toss they really should have won. As they have lost their heads in previous international tournaments, so they lost to heads in this one, with the copper coming down with Ol' Lizzie Windsor's grinning mug giggling at yet another major trophy failure for the South Africans.

In the other semi-final, India, perhaps emboldened by their World Cup win of two years ago, set up a repeat of the 2011 Mumbai final by comfortably crushing England by a tail to no heads - Jonathon Trott was unable to influence the result of this one, prompting further questions about his function in the side, and the balance of the top order around him.

Dhoni's side then once again proved masters of the big occasion, tails coming up trumps to devastate the perennial near-missers Sri Lanka, and secure another title for India.

It was a thrilling competition, with all the teams registering at least one win, and worthy champions emerging at the end of it. It was all completed in under two minutes - watch and learn, ICC World Cup formatters - and was completely and utterly devoid of any suggestions of match-fixing, conducted as it was in total privacy, without anyone else in the world knowing it was happening. Much like the 2004 Champions Trophy.

● I am delighted to report that, after one match, my coin-toss prediction is 100% on target. And, as a result of it, India have come in to 10-3 with the non-naughty bookmakers, whilst South Africa have drifted from 4-1 favourites to 15-2 outsiders. And New Zealand, without playing, have shifted from 10-1 to 11-1. My one-pence piece is now under police protection.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer