Champion affair left under the weather

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After a 10-day heatwave, Atlantic depressions are due to march in on Friday morning, just as the UK is due to stage its most important cricket tournament in five years. Just our luck, you might think normally. But when you start a 16-day cricket tournament on September 10, you might justifiably think the organisers get the luck they deserve.

But, crazy or not, the ICC Champions Trophy is due to get under way on Friday morning, with England playing Zimbabwe at Edgbaston and New Zealand playing the US (honest, that's correct too) at The Oval.

On one level, this is a cracking tournament: all the top teams are here and all the top players, except the injured Sachin Tendulkar and Muttiah Muralitharan. It is a wham-bam, one-day 50-over tournament without the constipated fixture planning that now makes cricket's World Cup close to unendurable. It could be the midsummer highlight of any season.

But what a cock-eyed mess it all is. The Champions Trophy ostensibly designed to raise funds for cricket development was first lifted by the match-fixer Hansie Cronje, as captain of South Africa, in Dhaka in 1998 and it has been ill-starred ever since. The third event, in the Colombo monsoon two years ago, was a fiasco the final was started twice and never finished. And even in Sri Lanka, no one wanted to watch.

Here, despite England's golden summer, ticket sales are reported to be “sluggish”, which is unsurprising. The only major advance publicity the tournament has had was a story creating the impression that anyone caught bringing a can of Coke into the ground would be taken away by the stewards and tortured. Pepsi are one of the sponsors, and the International Cricket Council, whose baby this is, is very wised-up to the possibilities of ambush marketing. It seems somewhat less attuned to its own core business: the sensible staging of cricket matches.

The event is at least simple to grasp. There are 12 teams: the 10 Test-playing countries, Kenya, who have special one-day status, and the USA, who to general astonishment won the qualifying competition, beating Scotland by a decimal point. They are divided into four groups of three who will play each other once.

Zimbabwe, with its cricket in meltdown, are fielding the reserves who have already been kicked out of Test cricket as too weak; poor old Bangladesh are without their one decent player, Habibul Bashar; the Kenyans have gone backwards; and the Americans have no chance.

So barring shocks, and they would have to be huge ones, four of the 12 group games will effectively be quarter-finals on successive days starting next Thursday: Australia-New Zealand at The Oval; England-Sri Lanka at Southampton; South Africa-West Indies at The Oval; and India-Pakistan at Edgbaston.

In the meantime, not a lot, unless there is some fun shortly after breakfast. All the games start at 10.15am. You may recall that the September Cup final at Lord's was abolished because the autumn dew, even at 10.30 or 10.45, made the ball move around so much early on that the game would be all over before it started. In fact, the finer the weather the more likely that is to happen.

That will not be a problem at Lord's this time: MCC, the ground's owner, opted out of the whole thing.

The final will be at The Oval, which currently resembles the Athens Olympic stadium circa last Christmas. It is being rebuilt not for this, but for next year's Ashes series. Normally international fixtures at The Oval sell out months in advance; there are still tickets (but not many) left for this final as there are for every other match except India against Pakistan.

So it is all very bizarre. This should be England's way of atoning for the poorly organised 1999 World Cup, yet everything about it is designed to court disaster.

But this tournament has one great advantage over 1999: a credible England team. If they reach the semi-finals, and they darn well should, facing only the hopeless Zimbabweans and a Murali-less Sri Lanka, they would probably face Australia at Edgbaston, and the whole thing might just catch fire. If the English autumn doesn't drown it first.

* The England and Wales Cricket Board is to send a team of security advisers to Zimbabwe ahead of England's controversial tour, which consists of five one-day internationals from November 26 to December 5. The ECB has said that any players who do not want to play for reasons of conscience will not be penalised.

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