If doomsayers are to be believed, the Australian team and one day cricket both have one foot in the grave. There has been a deluge of early obituaries in the media. Pundits, who call for the 50-over format of the game to be put to sleep, do so as they say it has served its purpose of rescuing a moribund sport. When it comes to the Australia side, the accusation is that they are too weak to defend the title they won in India in 2006.
An Australian victory at the end of an exciting Champions Trophy competition could prove the cynics wrong and show both have a long life ahead. True, the Australians have just lost the Ashes in England and looked plebeian at the earlier World Twenty20 Championship. The retirements of Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne have left an irreplaceable void. Still, not even the most reckless bookmaker would dare make anyone else favourites for the tournament. The Australians may not be heading the rankings now, but they are still the team to beat in world cricket.
Look at the facts. Since the departure of their four stellar performers, Ricky Ponting's team have won 34 of 56 ODIs and lost 18 in their supposed era of decline. They arrive for the championship after a 6-1 hammering of the Ashes winners, England. Additionally, the conditions in South Africa suit their type of cricket. The Australians were overwhelming in winning the 2003 World Cup in South Africa and boast a 28-16 record in the country.
They do have problems in the side, at the top of the batting order and in the predictability of their bowling attack, but which team compares in big-match temperament, grit and sheer will to win? South Africa, the current No 1 side in limited-overs cricket, should be joint favourites. Playing at home and with a plethora of all-round talent, they probably have, on paper, the best side for the tournament.
But then, they have always have had such teams and yet have only one major title - the inaugural 1999 Champions Trophy. The Proteas have failed to get rid of the "chokers" tag . MS Dhoni's India, the stylish Sri Lankans and the unpredictable Pakistan all look good too, and that is what makes this tournament such a big deal for the future of 50-overs cricket. It is the first major 50-over tournament since the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, and the administrators have a prayer on their lips after that fiasco when the final ended in darkness and chaos over the rules.
The tournament was too long and there was a lack of atmosphere. The tickets were over-priced and stadiums had just a sprinkling of spectators. South Africa promises to be a lot better, if the support for the Indian Premier League earlier this year is a reliable gauge. That, of course, was Twenty20 cricket, the biggest threat to the survival of ODIs. Since the advent of the hugely popular new format, 50-overs cricket has started looking its age and voices from former and present greats, including Sachin Tendulkar, have suggested various ways to keep it alive. But how can you shelve a game that has been popular over the last 40 years?
How can you toss it away, as respected writer Peter Roebuck so passionately pleads, "in favour of a format that offers many things but not the most important of them all - the possibility of greatness". The Champions Trophy will hopefully prove to be the elixir of life for ODIs and Australia can only help towards that with some mouth-watering duels against India and South Africa. firstname.lastname@example.org