Packing a six-shooter
It is rare for teams to compete in two such demanding tournaments as the Champions Trophy and World Cup within six months, therefore it's not surprising that the buzz word among players and coaches in the build up is "flexibility".
There is no doubt that to do well a team needs to have more than just eleven good players to choose from but it also pays to understand that it's a nucleus of about six who either win or lose the big tournaments.
It is this core of players that influence the result of matches; if they perform well then victory is within reach but if the bulk of them struggle then it won't matter if the other five play out of their skins, for the tournament will be lost. For instance, if Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey, Andrew Symonds, Adam Gilchrist, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath all had mediocre tournaments Australia would have as much chance of winning the Champions Trophy as a Kiwi in a race with a pigeon.
The maxim about the "core six influence" is even more relevant in the shortened version of the game because so much depends on the top three batsmen when it comes to setting or chasing a big target. That is why it makes Australia's infatuation with Simon Katich as an opener so hard to fathom.
There are better options, players more likely to score a century from the top of the order that it makes no sense. Hussey [a natural opener in longer games] is a classic example. Australia insists that he remain Michael Bevan's successor in the terminator role and there's no doubt he does the job very efficiently but between them, Hussey and Gilchrist would effectively "finish" many contests before they really got started by batting together at the top of the order.
In general the make-up of the core six is two top-class bowlers, two top order batsmen, an all-rounder and a good wicket-keeper. That is why India desperately needs Irfan Pathan bowling well to form part of their core; when he's taking wickets he fits easily into either the bowling or the all-rounder category.
As surely as a team performs well when it has the three batsmen most likely to score a century at the top of the order it operates in a similar mode when the best bowlers are on song for the initial Powerplay and the closing overs of an innings. If you throw in strong fielding [the standard being set by the 'keeper] to back the bowlers then that is an irresistible mix, which won't often encounter an immovable object.
Hence it is easy to see why Australia have won two consecutive World Cups and equally difficult to understand why they haven't yet claimed a Champions Trophy. They have a strong core of six and in addition Gilchrist and Ponting regularly score fast hundreds at the top of the order, McGrath and Lee are a wonderful mixture as the miser and the mauler at the start and end of an innings and the fielding is outstanding with Michael Clarke and Symonds, along with the captain acting as "dead-eye-Dick's" when it comes to throwing down the stumps.
In judging the other contenders, Pakistan, New Zealand, England and South Africa [especially if Herschelle Gibbs is distracted] all struggle to find a confirmed trio of century makers at the top of the order. Sri Lanka will rival Australia for top order strength if Upul Tharanga continues in his current vein, the West Indies with Brian Lara at three would do likewise and India with Virender Sehwag in form and opening would be formidable.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka have both the depth and variety in bowling and New Zealand will reach that status if Shane Bond and Daniel Vettori are fit and in form. However, the West Indies, South Africa, England and India all fall a bit short in bowling class but the hosts can raise themselves into the first group if Pathan is firing on all cylinders. England would also quickly join that group if Andrew Flintoff were to magically regain his all-rounder status.
In looking for winners in cricket tournaments the key is to find the teams with a core six that is fit and in form. If those teams also have extreme flexibility then it is a bonus but like the Kiwi against the pigeon, it runs a distant second to a strong core six.