Give them an A
When the great Brian Clough, manager of the Nottingham Forest team that won two European Cups, passed away yesterday, someone wrote, with good reason, that "legend" was one of the most abused words in the language. But there's another word, grossly misused, that Clough undoubtedly knew the meaning of. In his pomp, only champions played in the European Champions' Cup, a competition since hijacked by the money-men so that even the also-rans could partake at football's top table.
For the past fortnight, we have seen the same abuse meted out to spectators in the UK. But where the also-rans in the bloated Champions League are actually pretty useful, there was absolutely nothing to commend some of the teams that took part in the ICC Champions Trophy. Zimbabwe and Kenya have retreated into the shadows quicker than the Americans at the Ryder Cup, while Bangladesh and the USA never suggested that they would do anything other than make up the numbers.
When the tournament was called the ICC Knockout, it wouldn't have mattered so much. But when you call it the Champions Trophy, and then include teams that can't buy a win, it can grate, even for a public that's accustomed to tabloid hype and hot air about "great" footballers who can't take England beyond the last eight of major tournaments.
The sad thing is that the whole exercise does nothing for the so-called minnows either, other than harden the stance of Joe Public who feels cheated because his hard-earned pound/rupee has been flushed away watching a mismatch of Muhammad Ali-Brian London proportions. After they were crushed by Australia - with Ricky Ponting clearly cheesed off about having to stretch his muscles playing such rank amateurs - Richard Staple, the USA captain, said that his team would learn from the experience. But would they? Did they absorb anything from those two hours of carnage that they couldn't have learnt from watching a videotape of the Aussies?
There is a solution though, one that would please the teams that are serious contenders for the champion tag, and also provide the minnows with the exposure that they so desperately need. India A and Pakistan A showed the way a month ago, taking part in an engrossing triangular in Kenya, and though the hosts missed out on the final, they did register a win apiece against pretty decent opposition.
No-one disputes that there is immense talent at the lower level. Steve Tikolo would have been a fine addition to most middle-order line-ups in his prime, while the likes of Elton Chigumbura, Nafis Iqbal, Maurice Ouma and Tatenda Taibu - is there anything he can't do? - have acquitted themselves creditably against the best in the business. But like a young boxer who needs to fight his share of journeyman pros before being ready for a title bout, these players need regular exposure against top-quality opposition before they're ready to excel on a consistent basis.
Imagine a competition with teams like Kenya and Bangladesh playing the best of the rest from India, Pakistan, England and Australia. Batsmen would get to face bowlers like Mohammad Irshad, Rao Iftikhar Anjum, Shaun Tait and Shib Sankar Paul, while the bowlers could pit their skills against accomplished batsmen like Brad Hodge, Gautam Gambhir, Ian Bell, Bilal Shafayat and Bazid Khan.
It would be a mutually beneficial exercise, with the A teams exposed to a quality of opposition that they might not find on the domestic circuit, except in Australia. And it would also give the fans that bothered to turn up a chance to confirm the fact that much talent exists in the wings, especially in Australia, India and Pakistan. It seems perverse that players like Martin Love, Stuart Law, Jimmy Maher and Vinod Kambli have spent the bulk of their careers toiling away from the spotlight, when they could have been utilised to facilitate the spread of the game.
With humiliating thrashings less likely, teams like Bangladesh and Kenya could gradually build up confidence for greater challenges like the World Cup. And such an event would also be a platform for teams and players that play one World Cup and then disappear into the ether. Men like Tim de Leede and Bas Zuiderent could have made an impact if the Netherlands had any sort of opportunity to play decent opposition after their World Cup debut in 1996. The game can't afford to make the same mistake with the likes of Jan-Berrie Burger, Austin Codrington and Daan van Bunge.
The idea of transfers between countries - or guest players - doesn't appeal to the great majority that swear by national flags and anthems, but few would quibble at the idea of a second-tier competition that helped both the minnows and the fringe players from the big teams. The next time the ICC plans a big jamboree outside the World Cup marquee, it should leave the Champions Trophy to those deserving of such a lofty tag - as is the case in field hockey - and let the rest do battle in a Plate competition against the top A teams.
Such a scenario, with a keenly contested match or four, might even put some bums on seats, which was more than could be said for the USA's blink-and-you'll-miss-it encounter against Australia.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.