ICC Champions Trophy 2004

Too many flaws, too little excitement

Matthew Engel

Glory days: Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan celebrate © Getty Images

As night fell, literally and figuratively, on The Oval and the longest English season in history, the West Indian No. 10 Ian Bradshaw smacked a ball from Alex Wharf to the boundary backward of point to secure victory in the fourth Champions Trophy, the tournament that veers between being the second most important in world cricket and a ludicrous waste of time.

It was a triumph that seemed improbable at the start of the competition - West Indies were the rank outsiders of the eight serious contenders - and almost impossible an hour earlier, when Bradshaw joined Courtney Browne with 71 still needed. England were traded at 100 to 1 on by punters on the internet betting exchange Betfair, i.e. a pound to a penny, and thus close to mathematical certainty. In cricket, that exists only after the game is over. No one (except someone suckered into that kind of bet) can have begrudged West Indies their success. Their players raced on to the field with a mixture of delight and astonishment that might not have been seen on this ground since their cricketing ancestors won the Test series 54 years earlier which foreshadowed the rise of West Indies as a power in the game.

It was a personal triumph for their captain Brian Lara, the man who had suffered most abuse during their recent decline. Three days earlier, he had been struck on the neck by Shoaib Akhtar in the semi-final at Southampton and his participation in the final was by no means certain. But he produced an inspired performance in the field.

It was a strange, and rather inappropriate, climax to a summer and a year characterised by the relentless pummelling Lara's team had received from England. But there were wider issues here. The whole Caribbean was in the grip of a particularly dire hurricane season, in which a succession of storms had wrought death and destruction across several of the islands; now once again cricket could fulfil its historic destiny and bring the people of the region together in pride. The defeat maintained England's sorry record as the only member of the big eight (the Test-playing countries minus Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) never to win a global one-day tournament. West Indian cricket, however, was in greater need of this victory, at least as long as it did not kid their administrators into thinking the flabby complacency that has bedevilled the game there for a decade was now cured.

On the other hand, one couldn't help feeling that if West Indies were the answer, it must have been a damn silly question. The enthralling climax was entirely out of keeping with a terrible tournament that was ill-conceived and ill-executed in almost every particular. For sheer dreadfulness, the fourth Champions Trophy surpassed the third, which in Sri Lanka two years earlier had failed to produce a winner at all.

The International Cricket Council's hard-working publicity machine maintained a relentless flow of upbeat information, and at the closing ceremony the president Ehsan Mani proudly announced that "over 100,000 spectators and tens of millions of television viewers around the world" had watched the 15 matches. Worldwide TV viewers are notoriously hard to assess, but that 100,000 figure is easy to break down.

Since the final was sold out, and India's two matches and Australia v New Zealand were crammed with expatriate supporters, it meant the attendance at the other 11 fixtures, including both semi-finals, ranged from the paltry to the pathetic. In keeping with the strained relations between the ICC and the hosts, the ECB, recriminations were muted but inevitable. It is not easy to apportion blame precisely for this fiasco, but between them the two governing bodies constituted a deadly combination.

The Champions Trophy began in 1998 as an altruistic endeavour, to raise funds for cricketing development. Thus sceptical countries (like England) were shamed into taking it seriously as a biennial mini-World Cup. In theory, the fourth renewal - its existence only confirmed when England agreed to knuckle down and tour Zimbabwe in November - fitted precisely into that category. All the world's leading players were present except Sachin Tendulkar and Muttiah Muralitharan (both injured) and Shane Warne and Graham Thorpe (retired from one-day internationals). Still, hardly anyone cared.

The event was slotted into the schedule as an afterthought. It has found a home in September, the only month when there is little international cricket. But there is a good reason for that: September is a lousy month for the game over most of the planet - it is the monsoon season in much of the subcontinent, including Mumbai and Kolkata; it is rainy in the Cape and hurricane time in the West Indies; it is too early in much of Australia, which is in any case distracted by its footy finals; and undoubtedly too late in England. (The weather in Zimbabwe might be just right, though.)

Clearly, a 16-day tournament involving all the major countries could have been a huge success in the English midsummer. The ICC said there was nothing to stop it being held then; but by the time England stupidly volunteered to host the tournament, too many commitments were in place. So the event began on September 10, when the children are back at school, and the season is usually winding down to its often sodden conclusion. ECB officials insisted, sometimes tetchily, that September is statistically drier than both July and August. This is true, but meteorologically illiterate. Midsummer rain often comes from heat-induced storms and falls quickly and intensely. You don't have to be an expert to know the difference between that, and the endless drizzle of autumn. The probability of bad weather, combined with the near-certainty of morning dew and the absolute certainty of early dusk, meant the tournament was pedalling uphill from the start.

The games had to start at 10.15, forcing spectators to buy premium rushhour train tickets (on top of the £30- 40 ticket prices) or get stuck in the morning traffic: before the ill-attended first semi-final - between England and Australia, no less - Edgbaston seemed the only unjammed area of Birmingham. The final finished in pitch dark at just 6.36 p.m.

As it happened, there was a heatwave that lasted until the eve of the opening match, and the weather perked up again the day after the final, which itself was played in ferocious wintry cold. Unlucky? You could say the organisers got the luck they deserved. In such conditions, the toss became absurdly important. The West Indians probably won the final despite rather than because of winning the toss: they had to bat in the dark after fielding in the rain, with the ball like soap. But the conventional wisdom was overwhelming. All but two of the 15 tosswinners chose to field first, the Pakistanis proving a rare exception when they astoundingly chose to bat in their semi-final against West Indies. Bob Woolmer, the coach, said later the decision was prompted by advice from "high sources", which merely increased the speculation, and the Pakistan board chairman had to issue a clarification, insisting Woolmer had just meant people who knew the Rose Bowl well. Of the seven truly competitive matches, the team batting first won just one.

The poor timing was backed up by marketing that barely even approached the third-rate. The imaginative ideas employed to attract spectators to county Twenty20 matches were entirely forgotten. Nothing was spent on building the competition in the public consciousness. Astonishingly, for such a supposedly important competition, there was no attendant merchandising: not a T-shirt, not a key fob, not a souvenir mug. However, the shops round the grounds did have signs informing spectators they could not buy England shirts there - because the team sponsors, Vodafone, were competitors of one of the four event sponsors, Hutch.

This tied in with the one aspect of the Trophy that did get publicity. The ICC's obsession with the threat of "ambush marketing", a publicity stunt by a rival of one of the sponsors, led them to issue blood-curdling warnings to spectators not to carry in the wrong brand of cola or crisps. In vain did the ECB protest that no one really intended to bar spectators who happened to have a solitary bottle of Coke in their bag. But the ICC regulation is unequivocal; the damage was done, the public ridicule duly collected.

Although no one was actually known to have been taken away and tortured by the stewards, a gateman at Southampton was spotted solemnly assisting a spectator pouring the wrong kind of drink into the right kind of bottle. Similar regulations were actually in force at the Ryder Cup in Detroit, which was being held simultaneously. But cricket, with its clod-hopping approach and snarling manner, reaped all the opprobrium.

Other parts of the organisation were equally dire: the Rose Bowl at Southampton, given the biggest test of its short life, proved sadly unready with desperate access problems, and some exasperated spectators claimed it took two miserable hours to get in and up to four hours to get away using the park-and-ride facility after the rained-off first day of the England-Sri Lanka match. Hampshire blamed a clash with the Southampton Boat Show, which caused mayhem on the M27. The Rose Bowl may be magnificent one day; but with hardly any cover and inadequate facilities and catering, it was an ill-judged selection for this event. For the convenience of the broadcasters, the event had to be confined to three grounds (and Lord's refused to get involved) so ticket sales were further hit because spectators in most places had famine, whereas those in Southampton and Birmingham had five games each, far more than they wanted or could afford.

A great deal might have been forgiven had the cricket been better. But the ICC's reach exceeded its grasp. By inviting 12 teams when only eight had any chance of being competitive, it created a tournament that had fewer matches than mismatches. The organisers chose to get the rubbish out of the way at the start. That meant the first eight games were all inevitably one-sided. The remnants of Zimbabwean cricket did provide a better account of themselves than expected, and gave Sri Lanka in particular some anxious moments. But they were still outclassed; Bangladesh and Kenya were both very poor, while the ageing Caribbean exiles billed as the United States, who only qualified in curious circumstances (see page 1380), would have been better employed in September playing the Cross Arrows on the Nursery Ground rather than being given a working over at the Rose Bowl by Australia in less than three hours. New Zealand's batsmen took 110 off the Americans in the last five overs.

Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, made it clear he felt the USA should not have been there at all. "I'm not convinced the Champions Trophy or World Cup is the place for these sides to play," he said. Malcolm Speed, the ICC chief executive, insisted the Americans' inclusion would raise the profile of cricket in the US. A database trawl after the Australian match showed that, apart from some of the Florida papers which provide brief coverage of cricket for their Caribbean readers, only one major American newspaper gave the game a mention: the Detroit Free Press had one dismissive paragraph.

Despite the absence of crowds, behaviour did become an issue, when drunken Antipodeans decided to take on the stewards and charge the field after the Australia-New Zealand match. Six stewards were injured. There were also scuffles involving mischievous Indian interlopers at Pakistan v West Indies. These were at least displays of enthusiasm, which rarely recurred either at home or abroad, especially after India's exit. Some Indian TV advertising slots had to be slashed from up to 300,000 rupees (£3,600) for ten seconds to 50,000. The small Australian press corps complained their papers were uninterested, even before their team's defeat.

There were relatively few umpiring controversies. The innovation of wiring up umpires in some matches to the stump microphone made no obvious difference, and the decision to hand over calling of no-balls to the third umpire made no waves, though there were some signs of rebellion among the umpires themselves.

And of course, 15 cricket matches will produce happy memories that will linger: the joy of the West Indians at The Oval; Lara's effervescence in the field that day; the raw aggression of Shoaib Akhtar and Steve Harmison; the batting of Marcus Trescothick and Ramnaresh Sarwan; England's sudden realisation that they could and would beat Australia; the noise generated by the Indian and Pakistani spectators at Edgbaston; the enthusiasm of the young Zimbabweans and the all-round promise of young Elton Chigumbura, the one good thing yet to emerge from his country's trauma, cricketing and general. But overall, the main memories will be of cold and wet, of organisational disasters and of the general sense of a doomed competition that did cricket far more harm than good, all of which was obvious and avoidable.

Match reports for

1st Match: England v Zimbabwe at Birmingham, Sep 10-11, 2004
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2nd Match: New Zealand v United States of America at The Oval, Sep 10, 2004
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3rd Match: India v Kenya at Southampton, Sep 11, 2004
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4th Match: Bangladesh v South Africa at Birmingham, Sep 12, 2004
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5th Match: Australia v United States of America at Southampton, Sep 13, 2004
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6th Match: Sri Lanka v Zimbabwe at The Oval, Sep 14, 2004
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7th Match: Kenya v Pakistan at Birmingham, Sep 14-15, 2004
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8th Match: Bangladesh v West Indies at Southampton, Sep 15, 2004
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9th Match: Australia v New Zealand at The Oval, Sep 16, 2004
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10th Match: England v Sri Lanka at Southampton, Sep 17-18, 2004
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11th Match: South Africa v West Indies at The Oval, Sep 18-19, 2004
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12th Match: India v Pakistan at Birmingham, Sep 19, 2004
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1st SF: England v Australia at Birmingham, Sep 21, 2004
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2nd SF: Pakistan v West Indies at Southampton, Sep 22, 2004
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Final: England v West Indies at The Oval, Sep 25, 2004
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