SA favourites at Champions Trophy
British bookies makes South Africa favourites to win the tournament at odds of 4/1.
LONDON - While the first two Champions Trophies were intended to raise the profile of cricket in host nations Bangladesh and Kenya, the seventh and last edition starting in England on Thursday will be a straight shootout between the sport's eight heavyweight nations.
The hosts, holders Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka will do battle in Group A while India, Pakistan, South Africa and West Indies compete for semifinal places in Group B as the game's 50-over format gets a rare moment in the spotlight.
With test cricket still the pinnacle, and the increasing popularity of the Twenty20 format, 50 overs matches have often become dull with formulaic batting and defensive bowling dominating for large chunks of the games.
But with attacking batsmen of the quality of West Indian Chris Gayle and New Zealand's Brendon McCullum and bowlers such as South African paceman Dale Steyn and Pakistan spinner Saeed Ajmal there could be fireworks in the 18-day tournament.
Picking a winner is difficult and every team look to have genuine hopes of lifting the trophy at Edgbaston in Birmingham on June 23. British bookmaker Ladbrokes makes South Africa favourites at odds of 4/1 with New Zealand the outsiders at just 12/1.
England, who have never won a major 50 overs tournament, were hoping that home conditions would work in their favour but they were mauled by New Zealand in the first two games of the current one-day series.
They also have injury doubts over Stuart Broad and Steve Finn and, if the two tall fast bowlers fail to recover in time, captain Alastair Cook looks short of quality options with the ball.
New Zealand opener Martin Guptill is enjoying a purple patch with two unbeaten centuries against England, including a brilliant 189 not out in the last game in Southampton.
The Black Caps will fancy their chances of going one better than in 2009 when they lost in the final to Australia. New Zealand beat India to win the trophy in Kenya in 2002.
The Australians are no longer the dominant force in one-day international cricket but they have fast bowlers in Mitchell Starc and Clint McKay who should thrive in English conditions.
South Africa, who play India in the tournament's opening match, enter a new era without great all-rounder Jacques Kallis, who is unavailable for personal reasons, but captain AB de Villiers has the best fast bowling attack at his disposal led by Steyn.
If De Villiers can lead by example with the bat, the South Africans will be confident of giving their departing coach Gary Kirsten the perfect send-off.
West Indian cricket is on a high after their shock win in last year's Twenty20 World Cup.
The imposing Gayle is the most destructive batsman in the world on his day as he showed six weeks ago in his astonishing record-breaking innings of 175 from 66 balls in the Indian Premier League.
The team from the Caribbean will be led by all-rounder Dwayne Bravo and they did win the Champions Trophy in 2004, the last time it was played in England.
India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka will ensure a strong Asian challenge.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni led India to the 2011 World Cup and, with batsmen of the calibre of Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and the captain himself, run-scoring should not be a problem.
Pakistan are the most wildly inconsistent team in world cricket.
But they have come together well as a unit under the captaincy of Misbah-ul-Haq and Ajmal's guile is a game-changing weapon.
Sri Lanka have a formidable top order with the experience of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan and a devastating pace bowler in Lasith Malinga.