The Champions Trophy is a much maligned tournament. The fact that it was created with the sole purpose of making money to plough back into the system irks some. Others suggest that it takes the shine off the World Cup. For certain people just the fact that it is a one-day tournament makes it a waste of time. The 2006 edition provided enough good games, clear trends on which teams and players are on the rise and which are on the wane, and plenty to talk about. To me, it was West Indies' tournament, which Australia won.
The noise and the chatter
When the tournament began there was a very real danger that the rumbling spat between the ICC and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) would blow-up into a full fledged crisis. With the Indian board either taking shots at the ICC, or replying to remarks made by the ICC, in the media, there was the chance that sports pages would have been filled with Malcolm Speed and Lalit Modi, rather than hard cricket. That this tournament began with a qualifying round - and this inevitably yields one-sided matches, meant that it took some time before the cricket was hot enough to push out the officials from the sports pages. Once things began to fall into place, though, it all changed.
Chris Gayle made this tournament his own. There are plenty of batsmen in the world capable of scoring 474 runs in a tournament, but few who can do in the crowd-pulling manner that Gayle did. His hitting - against any sort of bowler, on any kind of pitch - was reminiscent somehow of an era when West Indies dominated cricket. It's easy to romanticise these things, but Gayle is just such a throwback to a time when a batsman had to worry more about his off stump than anti-ambush marketing clauses that you make the exception in his case. He clowns around at press conferences, celebrates taking catches of wickets, or scoring hundreds, with anything from the sublime to the ridiculous, and just bats on regardless.
Another star was Jerome Taylor, the leading wicket-taker. Loose limbed and athletic, he ran in with pace and purpose, and really it should have surprised no-one that he did as well as he did, including becoming the first West Indian to pick up a hat-trick. Then there was Damien Martyn, repeatedly coming in to bat after a wobble, steadying the ship with serene batting. There was Stephen Fleming, handing out lessons on how to adjust to different conditions and bat on tricky pitches.
The form book
The early phase of this tournament made it impossible to predict any result with a degree of certainty. Pakistan beat Sri Lanka, West Indies beat Australia, West Indies beat India, New Zealand beat South Africa, South Africa beat Pakistan . The fact that the tournament was played in three different venues, each providing differing pitches, meant that teams had to adapt quickly, and often it was the team that displayed the most tactical nous, and cricketing intelligence, on the day, that won, rather than the better team. This meant that the tournament was wide open for a lot longer than pundits initially expected.
India, the hosts, being knocked out before the semi-final stage, along with Sri Lanka, who appeared to have the early momentum, and Pakistan, left the tournament with no Asian teams going into the last four, and this was a disappointment. But the teams that did make it, South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies, and of course, Australia, were the ones that had played the best cricket at key moments in the tournament.
There was only one really bad pitch all tournament, the one at the Brabourne Stadium for the South Africa-New Zealand match. It deteriorated too rapidly, crumbling in the second half, making it next to impossible for South Africa to chase a target. Another one that came close to being unacceptable was the green seamer at Mohali where South Africa rolled Pakistan over, and here too the batsmen had little chance of mastering the bowlers.
Barring those two matches, the pitches for the tournament were fine, with the only odd losing captain whinging from time to time. The pitches certainly weren't of the kind people take for granted in India - flat batting strips where even 300 is not safe, and they certainly made for better cricket in many ways. Captaincy became a crucial element as strategy played a huge part in each match, and high quality batsmen willing to apply themselves were in demand.
The bits and bobs
Although the crowds largely stayed away from the games through a combination of India's poor performance and the high prices of tickets, when they did make it to the grounds they were treated better than is normally the case. The stadia in question, at Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Mohali, have improved out of sight, and it's now realistically possible to get a seat, something to eat, and reasonable amenities at the ground. The organisation - and though there's always plenty of room for improvement - was a cut above the ordinary for India. Credit must go to all parties involved - the ICC, the BCCI and the local associations, but mostly to the men who ensured that through all the bickering, the work got done. They're the officials whose names you don't see in the papers, and the ones that play the most vital roles.
The best team in the world qualified to play the final against the team playing the best cricket in the world at the time. You couldn't ask for more, if you were fair. And in the end, as has been the case in many grand finals now - the 1999 World Cup final in England, the 2003 World Cup final in South Africa, and now this - the Australians just blew away the opposition. West Indies had one of their off days, Australia were too strong overall, and go into the Ashes having won the one tournament that eluded them. West Indies had mounted a creditable defence of their title, and played with pride, something that gives you the hope that they can give a good account of themselves when the carnival travels to their part of the world, for the biggest tournament around, not far from now.
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