A last hurrah for a beleaguered tournament
Like so many flashbacks from Chris Nolan's Memento, indelible World Cup memories have chronicled one-day cricket's story all the way back to its inception. MS Dhoni's last-ball six in 2011 laid the final, triumphant brick in a new cricket superpower's blinding monolith. Four years earlier, the Australian juggernaut had wound down its limited-overs dominance with a campaign ruled by such unrelenting arrogance, you wondered why a tournament was even required to determine the victor. In 1996, a near-minnow drove forward the evolution of the game and scripted one of the sport's most compelling underdog narratives, and in 1992, Jonty Rhodes' stump-felling dive to dismiss Inzamam-ul-Haq helped spark a revolution in cricket's third discipline that hurtles on at warp-speed in 2013.
Pitched for the most part as the mini-World Cup, the Champions Trophy has left no legacy to merit even that meagre title. Keen cricket fans will reel off a list of World Cup-winning captains from Clive Lloyd to Dhoni in a heartbeat, but head-scratching might precede tentative guesses at the names of men who have held the Champions Trophy aloft, even in the last decade. Once the ICC's revenue-turner in non-World Cup years, the tournament has now been usurped in almost every regard by the sexier World Twenty20 and, after June 23, it will have outgrown its use altogether. That it is being given this final hurrah is down to not much more than a contractual obligation to the ICC's broadcaster.
At times, perhaps, the Champions Trophy has provided much-needed context for the ODI game. The bilateral one-day series that swallow the international schedule might feel even more like unremarkable limited-overs sludge, were it not for a second major tournament to build up to in a four-year cycle. There are still far more ODIs in the calendar than matches of any other format, but whether one-dayers retain that frequency and stave away Twenty20's challenge, in an era where there is only one ODI gathering, remains to be seen. The format is supremely profitable, particularly in the subcontinent, but the tipping point has been inching closer for some years now and boards, like Sri Lanka Cricket, will be wise to note the diminishing crowds in home matches, even as they move to replace another Test series with a one-day tournament.
There is no reason the final Champions Trophy cannot be enjoyed while it lasts, however. Tickets are going at unmistakeably first-world prices and, while the value of the cheapest seats for the last World Twenty20 would not even have fetched two loaves of bread in Colombo, the tickets for this tournament have been selling like hot cakes in England - several group matches have already been sold out. That the tournament has generated such interest in a double-Ashes year, promises plenty over the next 17 days.
The threat of England and Wales' early-summer swing has not yet shown itself to be a valid one, and should it remain unrealised, more sides will feel themselves capable of lifting the trophy, not having to overcome what has become, in some batting units, a collective weakness against the moving ball. If the practice matches at Edgbaston are any indication, the brevity of the English spring may not have affected pitch preparation as much as it was thought, and batsmen may have their way in the tournament.
Pakistan arrive as nominal favourites, but several squads have the personnel to take their side all the way, particularly as winning just four matches might be enough to secure the trophy. Buoyed by the series victory over England, New Zealand might rediscover their touch for stringing together irresistible momentum in world tournaments and will be among the most well-acclimatised sides. The Champions Trophy, in its earlier reincarnation as the ICC Knock-out, is the only major title New Zealand have won, and a repeat will provide a significant boost to Brendon McCullum's captaincy.
Angelo Mathews, similarly, will find it easier to lead in the long-term, if his side can discover the collective resolve that has driven their recent campaigns. India have set all the parts of their engine humming in the warm-up encounters, and could do with a break from the trouble at home. MS Dhoni, no doubt, relishes the prospect of completing the ICC-tournament trifecta, having already won the World Cup and the World T20.
The tweaked ODI rules will have a major working over, as well. The two new balls, which can pose a wicket-taking threat at the beginning of an innings, only remain harder and more hittable towards the end, when only four men can now mark the fence. As Dhoni suggested ahead of the tournament opener, sides may opt to shelve some of their aggression at the top, and man the middle order with attacking batsmen. High-quality death bowlers may be at an even higher premium, and the Powerplay - now routinely taken at 35 overs - has the potential to define matches, as momentum earned by the batting side in those five overs might be difficult to arrest in the last 10, given the limited options available to the fielding captain.
Mahela Jayawardene's early fears that the latest round of rules will inhibit the use of spin in ODIs have not, so far, been heavily borne out in evidence, but there is no doubt that slow-bowlers are now less likely to be employed in the final overs of a match. The ICC continues to fiddle with the ODI formula as they attempt to keep the format's heart beating but, as with their "super-sub" rule of a few years ago, some altered prescriptions come with a litany of unwanted side-effects. It will be interesting to see if men like Wahab Riaz and Lasith Malinga can achieve reverse-swing in English conditions, with the relatively new ball, because the art has disappeared entirely in most parts of the world.
There are too few matches in the Champions Trophy to generate a riveting narrative and too few teams to lend the feel of a truly global tournament. Few may mourn its demise, but if the cricket can be compelling, and the results hard-fought, one-day cricket will have been given a health check. There is fun to be had, too, if only of the fleeting, forgettable variety.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here