The best eight? It's only the top three who matter
"I love this format of the eight best teams."
If you heard it once during the Champions Trophy coverage, you were probably only listening to a few minutes of the coverage. The official memo must have been pretty clear: "This is not a nothing tournament that we once cancelled due a lack of general interest. This is the best eight teams in a ring, duking it out. Sell them on that."
That is what the Champions Trophy has become. It was never meant to be that.
The first two tournaments were to grow the game. A tournament in Kenya and Bangladesh to grow the game there. The child of Jagmohan Dalmiya. The money would also be handy to the ICC, who then probably had less staff than the current England team has backroom staff. It was noble and practical when the ICC Knockout Tournament was born.
No one cared about it. Why would you? It wasn't an Olympics, it was the Goodwill Games.
You may have noticed that Bangladesh are no longer invited to the tournament they first hosted. Of course, they also weren't invited to the one they hosted. It was an eight-team knockout event, and New Zealand had to play Zimbabwe in a qualifying game to make the tournament. Bangladesh had no games at all. Way to win over the locals. The Bangladesh players were presumably at the grounds, training hard in a passive-aggressive way as ICC officials walked past. South Africa won the tournament.
Kenya, the next hosts, got a qualifying game. They played India. They lost. Bangladesh had a qualifying game against England. They lost. Oddly, Zimbabwe had automatically qualified. West Indies never even made the tournament, as they were knocked out by Sri Lanka in qualifying. The crowds were close to non-existent at some games. Inspired by the great Glen Sulzberger being in their squad, the Kiwis won their first and only ICC event.
In 2002 the tournament was changed to the Champions Trophy and played in Sri Lanka. Five months before the World Cup. Whoops. To celebrate, all ten Test nations played, as did Kenya and Netherlands. Two teams won. There was a washout during the final and on the back-up day. So India and Sri Lanka were crowned co-winners. Which really needs no further comment.
In 2004, it was played in England, and America and Kenya were invited. Kenya were fresh off their 2003 World Cup semi-final, America were hopeless and lost a game to Australia with only 31.5 overs in the entire match. This tournament did produce the most memorable final ever, as Ian Bradshaw and Courtney Browne crept West Indies home with two wickets to spare.
In 2006, the tournament was moved to India. Only the Test-playing nations showed up. Australia won it, and Damien Martyn helped Sharad Pawar off the stage with a push. That was far more memorable than the final, a Duckworth-Lewis smashing of West Indies.
The 2008 edition was placed in Pakistan, so that never happened.
With the World Twenty20 doing well, and being played about every 18 minutes, the Champions Trophy was surplus, and now in the way of a more successful and loved tournament. With the Test Championship on its way, the Champions Trophy was easiest to kill.
Few cried. There were no protests at Lord's or Wankhede. No major petitions. No press outcry. It was just a weird tournament that had never really captured any imagination and was disappearing back into the obscurity that most of the matches were played in.
Had the World Test Championship not been so unattractive to TV companies, the Champions Trophy would have never come back.
But the evolution of the Champions Trophy is exactly what the ICC wants. And by the ICC, I don't mean the administrators who race around the corridors of Dubai Sport City. I mean the ICC that is the run by the ten cricket boards. The real ICC. The ICC that has gone out of its way time and time again to keep cricket a private club that they hold the keys to.
Before this tournament Ireland tied a game with Pakistan and lost the next match by two wickets. Ireland had no means of qualifying for this tournament, neither did Bangladesh nor Zimbabwe. Like Test cricket, it's by invitation only. No Banglas, no Zims, no Irish.
At the very least, imagine if the tournament was co-hosted by the Irish. That could be the future model. England and Ireland. India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. These are countries that love cricket. In Ireland they are making it as professional as you can outside the big eight. Nepal's cricket crowds are some of the best in the world. And according to Gideon Haigh's piece for the Nightwatchman, Papua New Guinea are mad for cricket.
That's a utopia where cricket outside the Test-playing nations is actually valued and pushed. Remember how the ICC is structured - ten votes for ten nations, three representatives for every other country that plays cricket.
Some fans and press have revelled in the top-eight notion. They have said that this is how the World Cup should be. It's quick. Every game matters. And there are no minnow games to ignore.
You can see their point. Of course, if you watch what is actually happening in world cricket, even the big eight don't matter. It's easy and lazy to point at India and suggest every single problem in the world of cricket leads back to them. But they have two able and willing accomplices who are happily making the big eight into a powerful three.
Australia, England and India are forming a cabal.
Australia and India played Test series in 2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2011-12, and 2012-13. Outside of ICC tournaments they have also played more than 20 ODIs and T20s. Australia have not played Bangladesh in a Test match in that time. They have played six ODIs.
England have played Tests against Bangladesh, home and away in 2010. Since then they have played eight Tests against India; next summer they have five more.
Bangladesh have never played a Test match in India. The two played in one series since 2007.
From July 2013 to January 2015, Australia, India and England will have been involved in 19 Test matches together.
Any other country from the "best eight teams" or the ten Test-playing nations is expendable and getting frozen out. This cabal of powerful boards has known that it makes the most money playing each other for a while now. Now the three are cashing in often. They are devolving the game right in front of our eyes.
Last summer South Africa played England for the No. 1 crown in Test cricket. It was a three-Test series. Why? Because England were hosting Australia for ODIs that practically no one will ever remember.
While it is nice to have a well-run, short, sharp tournament without any of those pesky Test cricket strugglers or Associates clogging up the format, if they can get rid of them, who else can they get rid of? Sri Lanka, New Zealand and West Indies don't seem to make any money. Pakistan are in limbo. And South Africa are stuck in neutral.
What makes any of these countries safe in the future? Other than to host them, India, England and Australia have no real need for global tournaments. They have no real need to play anyone other than each other. They have no real need for a Future Tours Programme. They have no real need for the ICC.
India don't even need England and Australia. They could easily go the route of American sports and play world championships amongst themselves while using overseas players when required. Australia and England could continue to make solid and dependable money without India.
That probably won't happen. Although, as the ICC's film on the history of the Champions Trophy said, this is probably the last tournament. No one knows what will happen next in cricket. Often no one knows what is happening in cricket right now.
A few days after India play England in the final at Edgbaston, the chairmen of the Test-playing nations will meet in London in what is the most important meeting in cricket. During breaks in the meeting, no ex-players will sit at a fake desk analysing what has been said. The press will not be allowed to sit in and judge the meeting. And there will be no facile interviews of board members as they come out of the room. That meeting is more important than the entirety of the Champions Trophy put together. The eight best teams plus the two others will decide cricket's future. A private club. That we didn't vote for. Deciding cricket's future.
Maybe they can replace the Champions Trophy with a Test match championship that only Australia, India and England are invited to.
"Good morning cricket fans, the excitement is really amazing in Chennai, this is a cracking tournament, it's played by the best three teams…"