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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cricket set for Champions Trophy

Cricket's second biggest 50-over event, the biennial Champions Trophy, begins in South Africa on Tuesday, as the sport's top eight teams vie for glory.

The tournament was to have been held in Pakistan last year but was postponed and moved because of security concerns.

Two teams from two groups of four will form the semi-finals, with the final to be staged in Centurion on 5 October.

England face South Africa, New Zealand and Sri Lanka but are without star men Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen.

Group A consists of holders Australia, India, Pakistan and the West Indies.

The England team were thrashed in the recent 50-over series against Australia, with only a narrow victory in the final match preventing them from becoming the first team to lose a series 7-0.

Without Flintoff and Pietersen their chances appear remote, and they begin with a daunting day/night contest against the talented Sri Lankans in Johannesburg on Friday.

Kumar Sangakkara's highly-regarded Sri Lanka side begin the competition against the hosts in Centurion (1330 BST start).

South Africa, the world's number one side, have not been in competitive action since the ICC World Twenty20 in England in June but skipper Graeme Smith said his side were ready to make an impact.

He said: "One of our major challenges as a team going into this tournament is our lack of games, but we have really focused hard in the last three weeks to train as well as we can by making it as competitive as possible.

"We have created a lot of scenarios and challenges which will best enhance our abilities.

"The guys are motivated and excited and I think we can use the freshness to our advantage by getting in and playing good cricket up front."

Counterpart Sangakkara was in optimistic mood as his team look to win the trophy for the first time outright, having shared the title in 2002 when the final and the reserve day against India was washed out.

In the last two months they have won a five-match series against Pakistan and won triangular series games with New Zealand and India, before losing in the final to Mahendra Dhoni's side.

"Everyone here is a professional unit and whether they have played recently or not won't matter because you are always in training and up to the challenge of playing," Sangakkara said.

"It is nice to have had a bit of cricket, but the only advantage of that is that we have been competing under pressure.

"Everyone in our team is confident, but our recent wins are not going to count for anything."

The popularity of the 50-over format of the game has waned since the introduction of Twenty20 and speculation about its future is rife, with a general air of apathy surrounding a second world tournament in the space of three months, following the ICC World Twenty20 won by Pakistan.

Lessons have been learned from the torturous 2007 World Cup, which comprised 16 teams and took more than six weeks to complete its 51 matches, with only 15 games over a far more sensible two-week period in this competition.

The loss of crowd-pullers such as Flintoff and Pietersen, plus India's cavalier opening batsman Virender Sehwag, is unfortunate, however, and some big-hitting, action-packed close contests are urgently needed if the event is to continue in the long term.

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