May 31, 2017

A festival of cricket is upon us

England's meek defeat at Lord's was a departure from their recent style, but should not affect their prospects in a potentially vibrant Champions Trophy

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Stephen Fleming: "Short, sharp tournament bodes well for ODI cricket"

The pusillanimous effort by England in the third one-day international against South Africa should not weaken the self-belief that has characterised the team's cricket during the past couple of years.

Eoin Morgan lost the toss on a perfect morning for seam and swing bowling and Kagiso Rabada proved what we all knew - that the world has few such skilful and athletic fast bowlers. Which is not to say that the English batsmen were anything but feeble. Perhaps, with the series already won, they simply forgot to turn up. Some of the strokes played looked lazy or, to be more kind, tired - as if dusting up South Africa had become a bit of a bore. A gung-ho approach needs real commitment, which applies to both attack and, strange as it may sound, defence too. The touchy-feely effort we watched on Monday is bound to come unstuck against the well-directed moving ball.

Over the past two years, England's one-day cricket has been characterised by a clear sense of purpose. Mainly, this has involved batting aggressively, fielding with a collective and intimidatory energy and bowling with realistic ambition. England did not attack with the bat as aggressively as they might have done at Lord's - think of Adam Gilchrist or Brendon McCullum in the same situation - and did not defend with a positive mindset. The one batsman who did play to the more usual template was Jonny Bairstow and he, of course, was the only one with a point to prove.

It is rare in these days of straw-coloured one-day pitches to see one with a tinge of green and a hint of moisture in its surface. Add in an overcast sky, surprising humidity and some early morning rain - in other words, England in June - and the odds are firmly in favour of the quicks and their new ball. In these circumstances, batting requires intelligence and application, but that does not necessarily mean defence. It means a clear head and total commitment to a common approach.

Audacity and derring-do? Yes, please! © Getty Images

Such is the design of the Champions Trophy that there is little margin for error: a morning like the one at Lord's and, whoosh, many a dream could disappear into the night. The trick over the next 18 days of Champions Trophy cricket is to judge conditions and act accordingly. The England batsmen did exactly that on a lively pitch at the Ageas Bowl last Saturday, playing within themselves for the first ten overs while inching to 43 for 1 before reverting to type. The result was 330 and a narrow win. Enough said.

In that match, South Africa, needing seven runs from seven balls, with two good batsmen well set, failed to score a run a ball. Dress it up any way you like, that is bad cricket. The usual things were said about South Africa's inability under pressure to finish a game, though it is hard to see how those who formed a reputation that took root 20 years ago can still be influencing David Miller and Chris Morris.

As a rule, South African folk are warm-hearted and generous. Neither the brashness seen elsewhere, nor the cold hearts that win many a sporting day, are typical of a country framed by its soul. Having said that, sport is a strong part of that country's DNA. It is inexplicable that the players should fall at the final hurdle as often as they do. Maybe, they care too much for the expectation and it's legacy so that the longer they fail to justify it, the longer it continues unresolved. Had the Ageas Bowl match been the Champions Trophy semi-final, the mother of all inquisitions would have taken place. As it is, a slam dunk of a performance at Lord's has lifted spirits out of that question mark - at least for now.

The Champions Trophy is a good tournament for it features only the best and demands that they quickly blast each other out of the water

England and South Africa are among the favourites, along with India and Australia. It is hard to look beyond these four and New Zealand, who quietly enjoy the role of underdog and rarely let themselves down. These five teams have the seam bowling to exploit a misty summer's morn and those captains who win important tosses may well win the Man-of-the-Match award before a ball is bowled.

The Champions Trophy is a good tournament for it features only the best and demands that they quickly blast each other out of the water. Much as one admires the global reach of a World Cup, it sure drags on. This does nothing of the sort. Blink and you will miss matches and teams. The three venues - The Oval, Edgbaston and Cardiff - will allow for a vibrant nationalism and it is no surprise that tickets have sold well among long-term fans of the game. It is disappointing, however, to see so little promotion of the event on the more public platforms that exist outside the cricket bubble.

The game in England has enough trouble selling itself to the young, and a golden opportunity to ignite interest with live free-to-air television coverage, saturation advertising and mass promotion through players, experiences, offers and events has been missed. The Evening Standard newspaper is behind June's London Food Month, a joyous celebration of all things yummy. This June should have been a Festival of Cricket too, with three fine cities showing off the game and its splendidly diverse charms and style.

Surely a country with South Africa's cricketing pedigree should not have that sinking feeling quite so often? © Getty Images

Finally then, to a little interaction. Were we selecting an eclectic team of the tournament right now - hang on, let's do a group of 15 players as each of the competing countries has had to do themselves - to play in English conditions over the next couple of weeks, who would we pick? Here is my shot at it:

David Warner, Quinton de Kock, Virat Kohli, Steven Smith, AB de Villiers, Ben Stokes, MS Dhoni, R Ashwin, Mitchell Starc, Kagiso Rabada, Trent Boult, Joe Root, Angelo Mathews, Imran Tahir, Pat Cummins (with Jos Butler unlucky!)

And of all time, say, since the first World Cup in 1975?

Adam Gilchrist, Sachin Tendulkar, Viv Richards, Ricky Ponting, Javed Miandad, Clive Lloyd, Imran Khan, Shane Warne, Wasim Akram, Joel Garner, Dennis Lillee. Kapil Dev, Muttiah Muralitharan and Glenn McGrath complete the squad (with lots of people, particularly Waqar Younis, very unlucky!)

I can feel the selectors among you sharpening your pencils, if not your knives. And how will the current-day team look in three weeks' time? How many will survive the cull as new faces emerge to hold our attention and light up the land? Bring it on.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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