In many ways, Mahendra Singh Dhoni's pre-departure press conference in Mumbai a couple of days back perfectly microcosmed the attitude of the cricketing world towards the Champions Trophy.
Infamously called the 'unwanted child' of world cricket by Malcolm Speed, the former CEO of the International Cricket Council, the Champions Trophy is now tottering on its last legs. The seventh edition of the 50-over tournament - which has undergone several changes in both participation criterion and structure - beginning in England and Wales on June 6 will be the last Champions Trophy. A novel concept aimed at bolstering the coffers of the ICC, with the singular aim of helping cricket development in the 'lesser' countries, has somehow been allowed to die a natural death, the proliferation and success of the Twenty20 format claiming its first, unsung victim.
No sooner did he arrive for the press conference in Mumbai than Dhoni whipped off his India blazer, choosing to front up to the media in his splendid white shirt. In these days when every gesture has to be interpreted, sniggers that 'he was feeling the heat' were inevitable. If Dhoni was indeed feeling the heat, he did a wonderful job of concealing it.
Now, India have had a poor run in the Champions Trophy of late. Not since 2002, when they were declared joint winners alongside Sri Lanka after the finals were washed out on two consecutive days in Colombo even though more than 100 overs in all had been bowled, have they progressed deep into the competition. In 2004 in England, they failed to advance past the league stage. Two years later, at home, they were denied a place in the semifinals, and in 2009 they fell victim to a combination of a drubbing at the hands of Pakistan and a washout against Australia in South Africa to make another early record.
India's dismal recent record in the Champions Trophy ought to have been a topic for debate and robust questioning. The fact that the Champions Trophy will be kicked into oblivion in less than a month's time, and its potential ramifications, called for soliciting a view of some sort from one of international cricket's more respected and senior captains. That India haven't had a good run in any international competition in the immediacy of several editions of the Indian Premier League could have been broached.
Instead, for the most part, the only thing we were interested in were Dhoni's views on the spot-fixing and betting scandals in the IPL which have knocked cricket off the back pages and firmly thrust them to the front pages of newspapers, and which have taken greater precedence than even the dastaradly Maoist attacks in Chhattisgarh on television channels. Prior to the start of the press do, it had officially been communicated that Dhoni would take questions only on the Champions Trophy. No one either heard, or paid heed.
So when every time Dhoni was asked a question on the latest fiasco and the media manager sought to move on to the next question, there was a sense of outrage. "Dhoni has been gagged by the BCCI" was the popular refrain, even after N Srinivasan, pilloried, castigated and lampooned, made it clear that no such gag order was in place. After all, how can you believe someone whose son-in-law has been arrested for betting, to start with, and who is desperate to cling on to his post as the president of the BCCI, right?
Mumbai played itself out in Birmingham again during the pre-tournament press conference on Thursday (May 30). When a reporter sought his views on the match-fixing scandal, an ICC spokesperson stepped in to say Dhoni wouldn't answer the question. Dhoni did. "If I have not answered Indian journalists, there is no reason why I should answer you," he said, before adding, "Whatever the set-up is throughout the world or any sport, still you have some people who would be slightly mentally weak as compared to some of the others. I would have loved to elaborate but at the right time I will do it." Once again, the "Dhoni has been gagged" refrain began to make the rounds with the BCCI again painted as the villian, no matter if it wasn't the Indian team's media manager that had stepped in before Dhoni could speak.
So, what does this have to do with the Champions Trophy, you might ask? Nothing, and therefore, everything.
Initially christened the ICC KnockOut trophy, the event was to be held in non Test-playing venues in a self-explanatory knockout format, involving the best sides in the world gunning for glory in a compressed, highly exciting sub-plot to the more elaborate, more intricate 50-over World Cup. The first three editions, in Dhaka in 1998, Nairobi in 2000 and Colombo in 2002, were outstanding successes. The tournament was snappy, the cricket of a high quality, the best in the world relishing the opportunity of going head-to-head in a competition not as high-profile as the World Cup but still a prestigious, must-win event.
Then, the spin masters stepped in, and by the time 2004 arrived, the tournament had undergone an overhaul of sorts. The ICC KnockOut Trophy had already become the Champions Trophy by 2002, but it was a Champions Trophy only in name when it reached the English shores two years later. Suddenly, you had the likes of Kenya and, hold your breath, the United States - yes, the United States - playing in cricket's Champions Trophy. One of the more unedifying sights of the 2004 edition was the United States squaring up against Australia in a league match at Southampton. India might have had a better shot against Spain in the football World Cup.
The Champions Trophy has given us some fantabulous moments - the dramatic arrival on the world stage in 2000 of Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan, a wonderful blitz in the final of the same tournament when, all on his own, Chris Cairns snatched the title away from India's grasp, the sensational come-from-behind triumph orchestrated in darkness and against all odds by Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw in the 2004 final at The Oval as the West Indies rudely shattered an English dream. Sadly, these seminal moments will remain mere footnotes in time to come. Much like the Champions Trophy, itself. Which is a carping shame because as a tournament involving the best eight teams in the world, it had so much to offer until a few wise men stepped in to fix something which wasn't broken.