By James Gingell
The 2017 Champions Trophy starts today, the tournament that nearly never happened. In 2013, the ICC said it would be scrapped to make room for a Test Championship. Then, in 2014, after they discovered that a competition of five-day matches would be tricky to organise, came a volte face, and the Champions Trophy was retrieved from the pile. Even in the weeks before the tournament, India – feeling hard done by after the ICC had reduced their revenue share from $570m to $290m – threatened to pull out. There was enough peril for Star, the official broadcasters, to write to the ICC outlining their concerns, before everyone agreed to play nice.
For those familiar with the history of the Champions Trophy – a tauter, tougher, quicker version of the World Cup, yet somehow always the poor relation – none of the machinations was surprising. The tournament began in 1998 as a charitable endeavour, with the Test nations taking part to raise funds for the rest of cricket’s fraternity. After Disney World (yes, really) and Sharjah were mooted as venues, the teams pitched up in Bangladesh – even if the hosts were not invited to take part – and £10m was raised.
England were scheduled to play the first round against South Africa on October 25, but were also starting an Ashes tour just four days later, so sent something of a Second XI. With Hussain, Stewart and Thorpe away, Mark Ealham batted at No. 3, while the absence of Gough and Fraser left new-ball duties with the Lancashire duo of Peter Martin and Ian Austin. Captain Adam Hollioake’s 83 not out helped England amass 281, but the effort in sapping heat left him dangerously disoriented. While preparing to lead the team out to field, he asked for sun cream, even though night had fallen. Then, after South Africa galloped home by six wickets, he felt like he’d “had ten joints”, and the munchies to go with it: Hollioake wolfed down five mars bars, three bowls of noodles and a pile of naan, until Dean Conway, the England team physio, told him to stop.
South Africa went on to win the tournament – it remains their only global crown – but no one was quite sure what to make of it all, or even what to call it. Wisden referred to the event as the Mini World Cup, others the ICC Knockout Trophy, others still the Wills International Cup. By its third edition in 2002, a group stage had been appended to the start, and it became the Champions Trophy.
In the years since, Matthew Engel, a former editor of Wisden, described the Champions Trophy as “veering between the second most important tournament in world cricket, and a ludicrous waste of time.” Dileep Premachandran, former editor of Wisden India has called it the “unwanted stepchild of the world game.” Tournaments have been marred by absence of an outright winner (in 2002, Sri Lanka and India shared the title after the final was washed out), by safety concerns (the 2008 tournament in Pakistan had to be moved to South Africa in 2009), and by unwelcoming ticket prices (almost every edition).
No matter its importance, some England fans are giddy: their team are this year’s bookies’ favourites. Australia, India and South Africa are strong, but England’s top six is the envy of all; if those canons can make up for what is sometimes a popgun attack, Eoin Morgan could well be lifting the trophy on June 18.
Some England fans are giddy. Others are waiting for the inevitable: buried deep in the reptilian hindbrain of English cricket’s collective psyche, there are demons. England’s record at the sharp end of tournaments is lamentable (and pretty poor at the blunt end, too). Their victory at the 2010 World T20 remains the odd one out of seven finals appearances: two Champions Trophies, three World Cups and one World T20 final have slipped away. From Mike Gatting’s reverse sweep via Browne’s and Bradshaw’s last stand to Ben Stokes’s Kolkatan crucifixion, each has left a painful scar.
England’s current crop will surely be aware of the history, and desperate to avoid the gallery of the grotesque. So it remains to be seen how their doctrine of fearless cricket survives the later stages of the competition when the scrutiny grows, and the height of the stakes leadens the limbs. Will they still dance down the track with their mind flashing forward to tomorrow’s back pages screaming FAILURE and LET-DOWN and BOTTLE JOB again? It’s hard to be free from mortal fear when the death is eternal.
England should have won in 2004, the edition Engel described as “ill-conceived and ill-executed in almost every particular”: attendances were pitiful with the organisers seemingly more interested in policing the brand of cola consumed ‒ only Pepsi allowed ‒ than encouraging people to come. The final was a bizarre game in which Ashley Giles was seemingly picked as a specialist No. 8 (he made 31, England’s second-best score), and didn’t bowl. Marcus Trescothick, who hit a hundred in a faltering batting effort, bowled three overs, and picked up Ryan Hinds, one of four ODI wickets for his military medium. West Indies, already in the grip of their sorry decline, were reduced to 147 for eight chasing 218, then somehow made it home.
In 2013, England were again the hosts, and again lost a final, against India, they should have won. With Cook, Bell and Trott in the top three, it was a team from another planet, but an efficient, traditionally English style of play had got them to the final. After rain reduced the game to a 20-over thrash, Morgan and Ravi Bopara got England within 20 of victory with 16 balls remaining. But four wickets fell for three runs, leaving James Tredwell needing 6 off the last ball; he missed.
The reduction of a Champions Trophy into a 20-over game? Sounds like a foreshadowing. As the shortest format continues its march, the Champions Trophy is highly likely to be scrapped after 2021 in India, or possibly even before, if a proposed ODI league is introduced in 2019. The great comedy producer John Lloyd, has spoken of how his friend Douglas Adams believed he had discovered the secret of life just before he died. It would be an irony that would have made Adams giggle if England discovered the secret to winning a one-day trophy just before it, too, ceased to be.
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