One refrain through this tournament from the various captains has been about how one-day matches are won and lost on the day, about who plays the day better. The clich has nothing fresh about it and as captains go, it is a standard line. But in this Champions Trophy, the line has had its essence reborn.
The very idea of one-day cricket had in it the lure of the unknown. Five days is enough time for the team with better skills and disciplines to, broadly speaking, show just that; over 100 overs not only is the gap in skills and quality between two sides naturally reduced, but different skills are created and rewarded and a winner cannot be so convincingly named. But over the years that core has become diluted. The very criticism of ODIs now is that they are predictable, patterned and thus dull. For many reasons this has happened, chief and simplest among them a glut of matches and the sick pitches in most of the subcontinent.
But this tournament has tried its honest best to subvert that predictability. At the very highest level, the argument is redundant of course, for Australia won it and they still win everything; four of the last five global 50-over tournaments in fact. But six results out of 15 went against the grain of common expectation; there was England's unexpected run to the semis and New Zealand's own mauled run to the final; if there was only one really close finish, there was at least some valour in West Indies' games against Pakistan and Australia. Whoever has played better on the day has won, but it has not been as easy as before to place the identity.
The reasons are easy to see. The format of the tournament, as everyone has agreed, is just right. There was always something at stake in every game, from beginning to end. There has been no irrelevance. One loss for any side made every subsequent match almost a must-win, yet mathematics were such that on their last group days, India and Sri Lanka could both have gone through with just one win: always tight, always open. Restricting the whole affair to just two venues was also smart, cutting out the ennui of travelling back and forth, practicing and playing in between and making the whole feel tighter, more coherent.
"The Champions Trophy has reminded us that ODIs, essentially, can still be a format in which many things pleasing and surprising may happen. If that was the yardstick before the tournament, then it has been a success"
And for once, one-day cricket has been played on surfaces with a little itch in them, to ensure that batsmen - increasingly the military dictators of ODI cricket - have not been able to entirely rule over the land of cricket. The pitches at Centurion and Wanderers have varied drastically and occasionally they have been unplayable: Ponting called one surface at the Wanderers dangerous and not fit for cricket, but even that, for the viewer if not participant, held some fun.
Over the course of the tournament, spinners and fast bowlers have had good times. Five hundreds have been scored, which doesn't sound too many or too little. Low-scoring matches have been tight, high-scoring ones competitive. It is a fair, even balance and it should - but probably won't - nudge the ICC towards trying to better ODI surfaces the world over.
This was also the first ICC event since the introduction of the batting Powerplay and at least in the debate it has created on what conditions enable its best use, there has been keen interest. Teams have mostly sparred with the innovation, nothing too radical in using it after 40 overs generally: 16 of 27 Powerplays before the final came after 40 overs which doesn't say much unless we look at the context each time it was used. But we know that some teams, like Pakistan, struggled to use it best, while others, like Australia and New Zealand, mostly got it right. It is a useful, worthy innovation because it adds to the unknown for both captains.
So everything is hunky-dory then. Administrators are pleased, captains across the spectrum have loved the format and the surfaces and presumably players have too. Broadly, the press has been decent about it too. The only ones in this wonderful spin who haven't been entirely on-message it seems are the spectators. Crowds have been healthy only at select games; South Africa's games, the Pakistan-India tie and the Pakistan semi-final. Otherwise, it has been poor, sometimes even dispiriting. On days the Wanderers has resembled less a bullring and more an ice-rink in the Antarctic.
Even here a qualifier can be nudged in. The belief is that locals, even as sports-obsessed as South Africans, are fatigued this year. In this year alone, there has been the Australia series, the British Lions tour, tri-nations rugby, the Confederations Cup and the IPL, for which crowds were definitely better. The true success - or failure - of it will not be known until TV viewing figures also emerge. But it still might be worth the ICC spacing out its flagship tournaments a little better: this was the second big event this year and next April there is another before the 2011 World Cup. Money has to be made no doubt, but some sense has to be used in making it; if every event is the biggest one since the last one, then viewers and spectators know it becomes less big each time. And is it a coincidence that in such busy times so many big-name cricketers were missing injured from this event?
The Champions Trophy, on balance, has shown that it has a future, as does the format itself. It has reminded us that ODIs, essentially, can still be a format in which many things pleasing and surprising may happen. If that was the yardstick before the tournament, then it has been a success. But it is one thing laying out a path for the future. It is entirely another to get on it.