Four matches into the Champions Trophy and there is a feeling of sadness about this being the last edition of the tournament. I always felt that the competition was a worthy addition even in a tight international calendar but circumstances meant that its importance was reduced over the years.
Call it indifferent marketing by the ICC or the frequency it was being conducted or the advent of Twenty20 but after a promising start in Bangladesh in 1998 and in Nairobi two years later the Champions Trophy (or the mini World Cup as it was initially termed) lost its significance.
Actually on the face of it there is every reason to believe that it could be as important as the World Cup. After all in which other competition does one see only the top eight teams taking part? In the World Cup you have several associate members which in turn has led to a number of lop sided games.
Indeed the decline of the Champions Trophy can also be traced to the point where associate members were invited to participate. In the present edition – like it was in the last tournament held in 2009 – only the top eight teams are taking part and there has been much to enjoy.
The standard has been pretty high, the matches have been close and after an overdose of Twenty20 it is good to be back at the original format of limited overs cricket. And England being the venue there is every indication that the matches will see an even contest between bat and ball.
But then exciting finishes were always going to be the order of the day given how close the top six teams – India, Australia, South Africa, England, Sri Lanka and Pakistan - are bunched together in the ICC rankings. And as I wrote in an earlier column New Zealand and West Indies can hardly be treated as outsiders given their recent form as also the fact that both are former champions in the tournament.
New Zealand in fact have the advantage of having been in England for over a month, playing both Tests and limited overs cricket. Their confidence levels also must be quite high after defeating England in the ODI series on the eve of the Champions Trophy.
And even though they huffed and puffed their way to victory over Sri Lanka making heavy weather of chasing a modest target they look good enough to make it to the semifinals from group A.
They have the bowlers for English conditions while batsmen like the in- form Martin Guptill, Ross Taylor and skipper Brendon McCullum can be expected to deliver the goods.
South Africa have been handicapped by the absence of Dale Steyn through injury and now with Morne Morkel also ruled out of the tournament the bowling is considerably weakened.
This puts the onus on the batsmen to run up big totals and that is not always possible in English conditions even with gifted players like Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers around.
To me West Indies will always be the dark horses. I wouldn’t be surprised if they pull off a triumph similar to their surprise victory at the Oval in 2004. They have a number of game changers and match winners but they can also be mercurial, a term that could be applied to Pakistan too.
In their case the bowling is better than the batting which looks pretty exposed when confronted by accurate seam and swing bowling.
Sri Lanka can take credit for the manner in which they made New Zealand sweat for a one wicket victory but they can take little confidence from their shoddy batting display. One feels however that this could be a one off and they can be counted upon to bounce back.
England are looking good. They adopted a highly professional attitude in getting the better of Australia. They have quickly put the defeat to New Zealand behind them and at the moment are looking the best balanced outfit. The same cannot be said about the defending champions Australia who are looking increasingly vulnerable.
There has been a steep fall in their standards of late and I suppose their chances of making the semifinals would depend on their charismatic captain. Michael Clarke once he is fit and available is the man who could inspire his players to perform above their potential – something they will have to do now that they have lost their opening game.
India rated as favourites when the tournament started have started with a meritorious victory over South Africa though question marks still remain over the bowling.
Indeed when Robin Petersen and de Villiers were on the rampage South Africa had every chance of chasing down even a formidable target of 332. The trio of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma were found wanting even though they were bowling in seam and swing friendly conditions.
And while it was good to see the batsmen put up an imposing total it must be remembered that South Africa without Steyn while Morkel retired midway through his seventh over. Shikhar Dhawan’s hundred however was something to be cherished. This should be the first of many ODI centuries for the swashbuckling left handed opening batsman.