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Champions Trophy begins today

Eight of the best teams will lock horns in South Africa to stake their claim to the throne of ICC Champions Trophy as it begins today. Hosts South Africa will take on Sri Lanka in the first match of the tournament, writes Anand Vasu. See special

cricket Updated: Sep 22, 2009 02:09 IST

In just the last 10 days, the No. 1 spot in the ODI rankings has changed hands thrice. If that is not enough to guarantee closely fought games and some seriously entertaining one-day cricket in the Champions Trophy, then perhaps nothing will.

Having hosted major ICC events twice — the 2003 World Cup and the 2007 World Twenty20 — the home side are desperately hoping it will be a case of being third time lucky. In 2003, skipper Shaun Pollock and coach Eric Simons infamously failed to read the Duckworth-Lewis table correctly and the Proteas crashed out of their own party. In 2007, all went swimmingly till the semifinals and once more, South Africa were dramatically dumped.

This time though, Graeme Smith will be hoping his team can last the distance - the South Africans have not played international cricket since the World Twenty20 in June and should be fresh and raring to go.

The team most likely to challenge South Africa come into the tournament under dramatically different circumstances. Australia, having just completed a 6-1 rout of England, are scheduled to arrive on Tuesday and it can safely be said that they've regained any momentum they ceded when they lost the Ashes.

The third team that will expect to finish on top are the Indians, with Mahendra Singh Dhoni's unit performing with admirable consistency over the last 18 months. Success in Sri Lanka in a physically and mentally demanding tri-series has put the Indians in just the right frame of mind ahead of the Champions Trophy, despite the disappointing 103-run loss to New Zealand in a practice match.

The return of Gautam Gambhir, who seemed to bat without significant discomfort at practice in Potchefstroom, means that Rahul Dravid can move back to his customary No. 3 position. Sachin Tendulkar has been making the most of some good form and the top-order can put together just the sort of base that will allow Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Yusuf Pathan to express themselves freely.

If India had one serious concern in Colombo it was the bowling, but Harbhajan Singh lifted his game just when it mattered, leading an attack that struggled to come to grips with the sluggish pitch at the Premadasa. Conditions in South Africa are very different and this should be just the boost the fast bowlers need. India's attack has generally looked penetrative in South African conditions, and even in the absence of Zaheer Khan, the battle for spots is keen.

In the Trophy's last two editions, India have failed to get past the initial stages. No team has won this tournament twice and only Pakistan and England have never won it. When the first ball of the tournament is bowled on Tuesday at SuperSport Park in Centurion, though, all this will pale into insignificance. Then it will be about ball and bat, winning and losing, and not about rankings or history.