June 1, 2002

ICC Champions Trophy: Blazing sunshine, blistering cricket

It promises to be a mouth-watering appetizer to the 2003 World Cup in March. Probably it will produce more spectacular cricket, after all, it will be played in Sri Lanka, the land that revolutionised one-day cricket when they gave birth to pinch-hitting in the 1996 World Cup.

Fast bowlers beware. Expect flat, sun-baked pitches, clear blue skies and fast outfields. This is going to be a tournament for the batsmen; the curators are already at work, mothering their precious turf in the hope of producing towering totals.

No longer a straight knockout tournament, it's a gluttonous festival of cricket with 15 matches in just 18 days. Each of the 12 teams (10 Test playing countries plus Kenya and Holland) have been divided into four groups, ensuring them a minimum of two games with the group winners proceeding to a semi-final stage.

It's a straightforward formula that should produce exciting and unpredictable cricket. In the last tournament, staged two years ago in Nairobi, New Zealand caused an upset when they defeated India in the final to secure their first ever major international triumph. This time, nine of the twelve sides will believe that they can win.

Jayasyriya
Expect blistering cricket

Home conditions will hand the Asian bloc in general and Sri Lanka in particular an advantage. Indeed, Sanath Jayasuriya's team will start as favourites alongside Australia considering a formidable home record in the limited overs game - they have not lost a single series or tournament in their backyard for over three years.

The slow pace of the pitches is ideally suited to their vibrant brand of cricket: batsmen need to make full toll of the new ball and early fielding restrictions before the ball softens; the fielding must be electric and the spinners have a very important role, especially in the second innings when the pitch may deteriorate.

But Sri Lanka have to contend with Pakistan in Pool 4 and then face the daunting prospect of a semi-final clash against Australia. It's good news for England fans - they won't have to play any of the top three countries until the final.

However, first they need to defeat Zimbabwe and India to ensure qualification. That will require the taming of Sachin Tendulkar and his blistering waxwork Virender Sehwag. Stand-up Darren Gough. For England's Barmy Army is a delicious prospect - stick September 22 in the diary.

Don't rule out the West Indies either. They have first hand knowledge of Sri Lankan conditions after a recent tour and are looking a sturdier outfit under captain Carl Hooper. Certainly a middle order containing a revitalised Brian Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Hooper is second to none. They play South Africa in the opening game of the tournament.

SSC Ground
Sinhalese Sports Club: one of two venues

All the matches will be played in Colombo - laid-back Asian city with wide roads, green parks and a refreshing sea breeze - at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) and Premadasa International Stadium.

English fans will remember well the grass-banked SSC from last year, when Nasser Hussain's team completed a remarkable Test series win. It has the potential to be the best batting strip in Sri Lanka with pace and consistent bounce, but can also offer swing bowlers encouragement in the early overs (Chaminda Vaas bowled out Zimbabwe for 38 last December).

Premadasa will stage the day-night matches, including the tournament final on September 29. A vast concrete bowl, which hosts an electric atmosphere when full. Again the batters traditionally dominate, but this is a fiendishly difficult ground on which to chase even moderate targets, as the pitch can crumble and the ball turn sharply in the second innings.

It will all make for a fascinating September; a spectacle best watched from the stands - why not make sure you're there to savour the thrill of watching one-day cricket in Sri Lanka?

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