Where heroes become champions. The International Cricket Council greets fans and players alike with this slogan at the 2017 Champions Trophy. Entering the Oval where India were taking on Bangladesh in a practice match, several punters were scratching their heads. Shouldn’t it be the other way around, they asked, hoping that their heroes might win the tournament and become champions.
The slogan, no doubt coined by some creative genius in an office, works brilliantly, if not in the way literally intended. After all, there is so much about this tournament that seems to be backwards.
For starters, the format is probably the tightest one going around. There are no easy matches, no games without context. In India’s case, for example, they take on Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka in their league matches, and they can’t slip up anywhere if they want to go deep into the tournament. Contrast this with the World Cup, where mismatches abound, travel is a nightmare and the tournament seems to stretch on endlessly before getting to the business end. And yet, the Champions Trophy is an unloved event, one that has somehow lasted this long despite cricket boards never really backing it as fully as they should have.
Then, of course, there is the weather. Cricket is most definitely a summer game, and Virat Kohli’s men, leaving from sweltering and humid Mumbai, would have been mildly amused to be welcomed to Heathrow with warnings of a heat wave sweeping London. Urging the public to stay hydrated at all times, officials warned that the mercury could soar to the dizzy heights of 30 degrees centigrade in parts of the country.
When Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma walked out to the middle to take on Mustafizur Rahman’s first delivery, the skies were steel gray, a cool wind called for jumpers and thankfully the rain stayed away, ensuring that the pitch stayed hard and true, not quite the slough-like stickiness that left England reeling at 20 for 6 against South Africa. It might well be summer, and designated a heat wave, but, in typically backward fashion, it was the cold and damp that was India’s greatest concern.
The wrong-way-around business did not end there. India come into this tournament as defending champions, but normally their favourite status would come from the batting riches they boast. But, with Kohli having abdicated his throne as century-maker nonpareil in the recent home series against Australia, and the Indian Premier League season that followed, it is the bowling that makes India especially dangerous.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar crowned himself the best IPL bowler of all time with a strong run, Umesh Yadav is easily India’s most improved cricketer of the last season, marrying pace with accuracy, and Mohammad Shami is hitting the straps at full steam. Add to the mix Jasprit Bumrah’s evolution from a handy bowler who could waffle and imitation of Lasith Malinga’s action to a clinical death bowler, and you have an attack that has all bases covered for English conditions, without even relying on the spinners to do their bit.
There was certainly a lively atmosphere at the Oval, Indian and Bangladeshi fans being far less restrained than the Surrey faithul, the original patrons of this fabled venue. But, just as you walked through the Jack Hobbs gate, and walked past a serious of sombre black and white photographs of the who’s who of Surrey cricket, there was a stark reminder of the clash of worlds that cricket has become. Even as Jim Laker was endorsed by John Major, the former prime minister and cricket tragic, with the words: “If the dust came up, the crowd were like Romans waiting for the Christians and the Lions to be introduced — because they knew what Laker would do on that pitch,” there was Deepika Padukone inviting you take a selfie from an advertising hoarding. In the land where beer flows more freely than water, there was Kingfisher, calling itself the real taste of India. If migratory patterns of the years gone by were about Indians looking for a better life on foreign shores, it is now Indian companies who are looking for bigger markets wherever the cricket goes.
To round off a most unusual day, the legion of blue jerseys who came to the Oval to watch Kohli and Dhoni, they had to be content appreciating Dinesh Karthik and Hardik Pandya plundering the opposition to the tune of 324 runs. The happy thing for Indian fans was that the result was not backwards, with Bangladesh being cleaned up for only 84.
(This article first appeared in the Economic Times on May 31, 2017)