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Champions Trophy 2017: Unpredictable results due to narrowing gap between teams

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-06-2017 Ayaz Memon

The ongoing ICC Champions Trophy, which at one stage looked like it might be ruined by inclement weather, has developed into a cracker of a tournament, throwing up outstanding performances (team and individual) and interesting results too.

Who would have thought, for instance, that three of the four semi-finalists would be from the subcontinent? Or that South Africa (ranked No.1 in One Day Internationals, or ODIs, by the International Cricket Council) and World Cup winners Australia would be eliminated in the league phase itself?

India (ranked No.3) and England (No.4) made the cut rather easily, though Virat Kohli’s team had a hiccup against Sri Lanka. But the other two semi-finalists, Bangladesh and Pakistan, were rank outsiders.

Even if the pitches have largely been flat and true (deliberately so, one understands, as the England Cricket Board chases more spectators), Bangladesh and Pakistan had heavy odds to overcome considering their past record in the country.

India are defending champions and favoured to retain the title. The much discussed rift between captain Kohli and coach Anil Kumble has had no effect on performance. But it is the other two teams which had bookmakers scurrying to revise the odds as they turned the tables on more fancied opponents.

Pakistan were the most “newsworthy”, so to speak, recovering from a thrashing from India to win a rain-hit match against South Africa and then prevailing over a jittery Sri Lanka to make the last four. Most impressive, however, were Bangladesh.

Being in the semi-final is a major feat in itself and would have sparked off extended celebrations back home. Their stunning win over New Zealand has been the high point of the tournament so far.

From 33-4 to overhaul 276 was like coming back from the dead. I can only think of a handful of such dramatic turnarounds from a near-hopeless situation. India versus Zimbabwe, 1983 World Cup, is one, and the trajectory Indian cricket took thereafter is well-known.

The failure of Australia and South Africa to make the last four is in stark contrast to Bangladesh’s success. These were two highly successful teams, packed with accomplished and seasoned players, but bombed badly.

Australia had perhaps some reason to gripe when their first two matches were hit by rain but they were so thoroughly outplayed by England that their ouster could hardly be attributed to cruel luck.

Among the reasons offered for Australia’s early departure were “too much international cricket” and the ongoing wage tussle between players and Cricket Australia. In my opinion, neither holds water. These are lame excuses.

Australia’s cricketers have played more or less the same number of days in the past six-seven months as those from other countries. If anything, the wage dispute should have provoked better performances, if only to prove a point to their board.

Perhaps a trifle more unexpected—but infinitely more fascinating in a wider perspective—was South Africa’s disastrous campaign. Since their return to international cricket in 1991, South Africa have always been a top side—often the highest ranked, as they are now—but have never won a major title.

This has baffled fans, critics, opponents and historians alike.

When it comes to the big occasion, like the match against India this time, South Africa’s deeds fall short.

Rankings in sport lose meaning after a stage because these are ephemeral. What is remembered more is titles and trophies: for the mantelpiece and for legacy value.

Why South Africa should continue to choke for so long is as intriguing as it is confounding. In fact, it is worthy of a socio-psychological study about cricket and life in that country.

From a purely cricketing point of view, however, results in this Champions Trophy show how much the gap between teams has narrowed in limited-overs cricket (Tests are a different ball game altogether). Why, outside the Champions Trophy, we had Afghanistan beating the West Indies in an ODI.

The crux issue today is that players (and teams) keep their wits about them all the time, shed complacency, and have a healthy respect for opponents; especially the threat from underdogs.

India would do well to bear this in mind when they play Bangladesh today.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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