England deserve Champions Trophy favourites status under Eoin Morgan
The Champions Trophy is on the horizon. This may not be a source of universal excitement in the sporting firmament but for cricket fans it should be treasured. This tournament can be a cracker. The format allows no slack: with eight teams participating there are no dead games and 18 days between the opening match at The Oval and the final there on 18 June.
Bangladesh, who ousted West Indies from the final eight thereby splintering the old order, are already around, meeting Ireland in a rain‑ruined match in Dublin on Friday. So, too, are New Zealand, who play at Malahide against Ireland Sunday as part of a triangular tournament designed to allow the visitors to acclimatise to the northern hemisphere. South Africa arrive in the UK this week for three ODIs against England and .
The emphasis in the Champions Trophy is on brisk, knife-edge competition rather than eking out every last penny from the broadcasters, which is often the way with the 50-over World Cup, since that tournament can plod along for longer than an election campaign – and sometimes just as tediously until the day of reckoning at the end. So savour the Champions Trophy – and don’t miss it.
England are the favourites, which is unusual and ominous. They have never won the trophy (after seven attempts), on the last two occasions it was held in this country, in 2004 and 2013. Even South Africa have succeeded.
England’s lofty status has some logic. Under the clear-sighted leadership of Eoin Morgan they have made major progress since the debacle of the 2015 World Cup. They now play a bold game. Sam Billings mentioned that some of the international cricketers he has met in the Indian Premier League are petrified by the England team, though he was then chided by his captain for such intemperate language. But the onlookers might be wary now.
The crunch comes when playing what is effectively knock-out cricket and this just about applies from the start even in the three group matches of the Champions Trophy. It is one thing to play with abandon in yet another five‑match series, another to do so when defeat means exit. That realisation can have a debilitating, conservative effect.
This was the case in the 2015 World Cup, when the coach, Peter Moores, talked a good game about playing with freedom, yet he selected in a fearful manner. Then they reverted to Gary Ballance as their No3 in pursuit of stability (unlike today when he has been liberated by the captaincy of Yorkshire, Ballance was not even in the best of form during that World Cup).
That selection betrayed England’s anxieties. We can be sure that they will not swerve this time; they will stick with the natural dashers, who have served them well over the past 18 months. That is a good start. But thanks to the delicious intensity of knockout cricket there is no certainty that England can continue to play with such blithe freedom when it really matters. This is the next hurdle for Morgan and his team.
The sudden-death nature of the matches will, in all probability, show the one-day game in its best light. The 50-over format has been increasingly derided in recent years as being too laborious in the T20 age. Well, that may be true if you do not like cricket much or, as is sometimes the case among those lucky enough to inhabit a press box, you are consigned to watch too much of it.
A 50-over innings has the capacity to ebb and flow. In the modern game – as opposed to three or four decades ago – the pursuit of wickets by the fielding side has become essential such is the capacity for modern batsmen to run riot and clear the boundaries towards the end of an innings. The number of sixes now routinely outstrips the number of maidens.
Meanwhile, at domestic level we must cherish the format while we can. It will be devalued in 2020 when the best county players will not be playing any 50-over matches; they will be involved in more T20 games instead.
This summer the 50-over format has already provided some terrific, topsy-turvy entertainment at county level in front of reasonable crowds, usually stoically wrapped in anoraks. Often those matches have involved Surrey, beaten by Somerset, who were 22 for five when chasing 291 for victory, and by Essex, by one wicket in a low-scoring thriller. Jonny Bairstow has smashed 174 to overhaul Durham’s 335 for five; Durham valiantly chased Nottinghamshire’s total on Thursday night. Worcestershire and Northamptonshire tied.
There has been much excitement as well as further confirmation that 300 is no more than a handy score in the 21st century. Perhaps too many of the matches have been decided by Kolpak players, such as Roloef van der Merwe or Rilee Rossouw, for the liking of the England and Wales Board. But there have also been gems from the old guard of discarded ODI players such as Ballance, Alastair Cook and Stuart Broad, as well as fleeting appearances from most of England’s white-ball cricketers.
The notable absentees , Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes, all of whom have made their mark in the IPL. They are returning to the UK, though these globetrotters must then immediately pack their bags for a training camp in Spain.
They have surely been enhanced as cricketers by their Indian experience and England seem to have coped quite well without them in the two matches against Ireland. Providing they have sufficient energy for the rest of 2017 there appear to be no losers in that arrangement.