September 25, 2011

The Champions League is split wide open

It's hard to pick a favourite for the tournament, because for the first time in a long time bowlers have been given a fair chance to attack in the Twenty20 format

If the qualifying section is anything to go by, this might be the best Champions League Twenty20 tournament yet. There has been some good cricket and a few surprises, which all served to confirm a couple of adages about the game. Most importantly, whereas in the past a couple of sides have looked out of their depth in the tournament, this time it would appear that any of the 10 teams could win the trophy.

First, the adages. Pitches that give the bowlers a chance produce the best cricket. The ones in Hyderabad and Bangalore had bounce and a little bit of life, which meant the bowlers were always encouraged and the batsmen had to be constantly alert. Pitches with some life also encourage the braver captains to seek wickets rather than concentrate purely on containment. This is when the game is seen in its best light.

The boundaries at Hyderabad's Rajiv Gandhi Stadium were fair; the sixes were legitimate and the mishits stayed inside the boundary rope. When the game becomes a boundary-hitting bonanza, it loses a lot of artistry, and fielding and running between wickets, two of the more exciting aspects, reduce in importance.

Then there were the surprises. Somerset were a revelation. They played aggressive cricket, their batsmen successfully attacked the spinners without constantly resorting to the sweep shot, and they have a good young legspinner in Max Waller.

You know the cricket world is in a state of flux when England is producing legspinners and Australia, the land of Shane Warne, Bill O'Reilly and Richie Benaud, can't unearth one.

Fortunes also fluctuated during a couple of games. In these matches the result seemed to be heading in one direction only to dramatically switch tack, like a good mystery novel, with a couple more surprises to follow and then a thrilling climax. This isn't the normal pattern associated with the shortest form of the game, where it's generally expected that one or two bad overs virtually put a team out of the contest.

You know the cricket world is in a state of flux when England is producing legspinners and Australia, the land of Shane Warne, Bill O'Reilly and Richie Benaud, can't unearth one

Once again this was a reflection on the pitches provided. It reconfirmed that when the fielding captain and the bowlers feel like they have a chance, all hope is not lost.

Also, the trend of using spinners in the Powerplay overs, to both stifle scoring and take wickets, has almost become the norm. This has come about in part because of the reluctance of batsmen to use their feet to spinners. It's now up to the batsmen to answer this challenge.

If the game is to keep moving ahead, these types of challenges have to be met immediately rather than generationally. The teams able to adapt quickly to trends, and even set a few of their own, will leave the sides that are slow to react in their dust.

The teams that work hard on getting their structure right and on putting in place good systems for developing players will have a distinct advantage over any of their competitors who are tardy in this aspect of administration.

One of the areas of opportunity is in junior development. The best coaches should be in charge of the juniors - from around ages 10 to 16, where they can have the biggest effect on a young player. The teams that develop young players to be complete cricketers will take a huge step towards achieving prolonged success. These teams will not only lead their opponents in skill but will also have greater depth of talent. With the amount of cricket being played now, the injuries mount up, and the strength of the reserve players is critical. The teams with skilful reserves will have a huge advantage over those whose ranks are tissue-paper thin.

A packed itinerary and injured players are now a part of the game, and unfortunately there are some star players missing from the Champions League tournament. However, this only provides opportunities for the young and ambitious, and judging by the qualifiers, there are quite a few hungry players around.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist