The road to the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) stadium here seems remarkably empty. There are no police vans in sight, the blockade at the beginning of the road is unmanned and the smaller vehicles are squeezing through a gap without being stopped or asked a thousand questions. Welcome to a Champions Trophy sans India.
The good part is evident straight off: You don’t have to walk a kilometre or so to get to the ground even on a non-match day, or be overwhelmed by the number of hangers-on wanting a piece of the players, or be part of a swarming, bloodthirsty media competing with one another to get that byte on air or that word written down and sent off even before it is out of Rahul Dravid’s mouth.
But on the flip side, India’s exit has taken the life out of the event. It would need some very exciting cricket to get it back on track and make it at least end as a tournament known for what happened on the field and not off the field. Remember, the competition took off in controversy with the International Cricket Council-Indian cricket board disputes and the Pakistan drug fiasco.
At the moment though, that sense of excitement, the carnival atmosphere that a multi-country event like the Champions Trophy should carry with it is conspicuous by its absence on the eve of the first semifinal between two superb sides — Australia and New Zealand. You can even walk down the stairs to the Long Room where a desultory guard eagerly awaits a chat — there are none of the aggressive, uncouth security personnel that mysteriously appear along with the Indian team.
Despite the lack of buzz around this game, from a purely cricketing point of view, it should be fascinating. Not just because the two teams involved have been playing some good cricket, not just because this is the semifinal of a major event and not just because of the Trans-Tasman rivalry, less hyped than the Anglo-Australian rivalry but in its own way, as intense, especially, perhaps, to the Kiwis.
This match will also be absorbing because it will be a contest between two strong-willed men upon whom their respective teams depend heavily --- Ricky Ponting and Stephen Fleming.
A lot of talk on the eve of this game has been about various match-ups, most involving New Zealand’s ace of pace, Shane Bond. We’ve had talk of Bond vs Ponting, Bond vs Gilchrist, Bond vs Lee, Kyle Mills vs the Aussies (he has a very creditable six for 80 in the event so far), but on the face of it, the match up between Fleming and Ponting, two of the most shrewd and articulate leaders in contemporary cricket, would be no less intriguing.
The undercurrents are obvious and the mindgames, no less so. On Tuesday, Ponting, asked in which department he thought the Kiwis had the advantage over the Australians, didn’t even stop to think before saying, “None”. And Fleming, when told of Ponting’s answer, stated, deadpan: “That’s fair I guess but that’s also the Australian way — they don’t like to look upon themselves as having any weaknesses.”
Then, he gave a slightly sardonic smile and added, “You can take what you want from this answer.”
Coming back to the Bond fixation, this game will lose a lot more of its zing if the paceman misses Wednesday’s game. Fleming said that Bond had a hamstring twinge and their final nets later on Tuesday afternoon would be crucial to him and to New Zealand. He said Bond would be reassessed later in the evening but hoped he would play.
If Bond is not fully fit, it would be a blow for the Kiwis, already off-colour with the news that Scott Styris’ hamstring and back injuries will not allow him to play. Styris top-scored with a runner in last week’s game against Pakistan and had a match-winning century against the Australians the last time they met, in the third Chappell-Hadlee Trophy game at Christchurch last December. That game, incidentally, was one of only two wins the Kiwis have had against their northern neighbours in the last 17 encounters, a point that Ponting was quick to emphasise.
Mills also has a couple of aches but should be alright. However, the Kiwis will probably be praying that Bond is fine. He would be vital as the wicket for the semi-final will be the same one that seamed wickedly early on when South Africa played Pakistan and played no small part in Pakistan’s unceremonious exit from the event.
Both skippers felt the wicket would not have as much as it did that day since it’s been under the sun for a few days now. But Fleming said that if it did have movement, it would be an advantage to both sides. And luck too would play a role in who emerged on top.