From the hot, humid and suffocating atmosphere of Colombo, the victorious Indian team is laying fresh roots in the Johannesburg highveldt. After being forced to work hard for every run on the sluggish surface of the R Premadasa Stadium, batting anywhere will seem a pleasure and every stroke less effort.
The rarefied air of the city that has the unfortunate reputation of being South Africa’s crime capital and the extra pace of the pitch at the Wanderers will pose its own challenges, but none that this team will think insurmountable.
While Johannesburg, and indeed the rest of South Africa, have one eye firmly on the 2010 football World Cup, and
preparations for the mega event are already at an advanced stage, quite unlike the manner in which India’s capital is
gearing up for next year’s Commonwealth Games, there is certainly a buzz over the Champions Trophy.
“Guard of Honour. Champion Cricket” scream the hoardings that dot the drive from the airport into the city. Why, at the O R Tambo International airport, the gift shop is already geared to receive Indian visitors, with caps and t-shirts of the Delhi Daredevils on sale alongside Springbok merchandise.
There’s much at stake in this tournament, apart from the obvious. The No. 1 ranking in ODIs, held by India for a mere 24 hours, is on the line, with South Africa, Australia and India separated by too few points for anyone’s comfort. The home team is especially keen to prove a point, after suffering the perceived slight of not a single Protean player being shortlisted for the ICC awards.
But beyond this even, is the cacophony of voices debating the future of the 50-over game itself. From the chief executive of the ICC to the paanwallah at your street corner, and everyone in between, the most lucrative format in the history of the game has been put through the wringer. The degree to which Twenty20 cricket has caught the imagination of the public and sponsors alike is becoming more obvious with each passing day.
Only recently, though, ESPN STAR, broadcasters of the Champions Trophy insisted that they had experienced tremendous sponsor support and had seen no discernible dip in television ratings for 50-over matches over the last six months. Not everyone believes this, but given that the broadcasters are the ones who have paid huge amounts for television rights, they have the most to lose if the event is not a success.
The ICC, prone to making sweeping statements about the health of the game without always accurately gauging the mood on the ground, will be watching this tournament closely. To their credit they have struck a formula that should please all major stakeholders - 8 of the top teams playing 15 matches in 12 days at 2 venues separated only by an hour's drive. If this does not work, then it might be time to seriously think about hitting the panic button.
For the moment, though, it’s time to see what the cricket world can take from this tournament.
South Africa have a reputation for being fantastic hosts — the 2003 World Cup was a success, the IPL moved here seamlessly in quick time — and there's no reason to believe things will be any different this time around.