Fri, Oct 06, 2006 - Page 23 News List

Lara sees qualifying games as a bonus

BLESSING IN DISGUISE The West Indies skipper believes his side may have been given a chance to hit the ground running at the Champions Trophy

AFP , NEW DELHI

Defending champions West Indies and 2002 joint winners Sri Lanka consider themselves strong contenders to win the Champions Trophy -- provided they qualify for it.

The International Cricket Council's mega-event which features the 10 Test-playing nations for the only time outside the World Cup starts in India tomorrow in a new, more competitive format.

The West Indies and Sri Lanka have been forced to play Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in a round-robin qualifying tournament after being ranked below the top six on the cut-off date of April 1.

The top two qualifiers will join Australia, South Africa, India, Pakistan, New Zealand and England in the main tournament which ends on Nov. 5.

"I see it as a good way of going into the tournament," said West Indies captain Brian Lara, who considers qualifying matches as a blessing in disguise.

"Australia, England, and Pakistan will arrive for their first game, but we will already have had three games going in. That's a slight plus," he said.

Sri Lanka, who take on Bangladesh in the first match in Mohali, also deserved better, judging by their recent results.

A 5-0 rout of England in July, followed by a world record total of 443-9 against the Netherlands and a 2-0 Test sweep at home against South Africa showed the prowess of Mahela Jayawardene's side.

The Sri Lankans have recovered from a humiliating 6-1 defeat in India last October and coach Tom Moody stressed the lessons of the past had been learnt well.

"We are now a better, stronger unit. A lot of young guys have come and done well in international cricket. There is a significant improvement, especially in fielding," he said.

World champions Australia, who have never won the Champions Trophy despite back-to-back World Cup titles in 1999 and 2003, remain the team to beat.

"It's obviously one we want to win," said captain Ricky Ponting. "It is the second biggest one-day tournament in the world and it is one that has eluded Australia.

"We've played some good cricket in Indian conditions before so we can go there now with confidence," he said.

Australia have been drawn with England, hosts India and the second qualifier in group A where two teams will advance to the semi-finals.

The other group features South Africa, Pakistan, New Zealand and the first qualifier.

The tournament will be a chance for the contenders to pit their might ahead of the World Cup to be played in the Caribbean in March-April next year.

England, who defend the Ashes in Australia less than three weeks after the Champions Trophy, will use the month-long event to test the fitness of key players, including captain Andrew Flintoff.

All-rounder Flintoff, who missed most of the English summer after surgery on his left ankle, stressed he was fit and raring to go again.

"The 12-week rehab programme finishes in mid-October to coincide with the India trip," he said. "It's going well at the moment. Everything I've done has responded well to the operation."

South Africa, ranked second behind Australia, hope to use coach Mickey Arthur's pledge of playing "brave cricket" to win the tournament.

It was the "brave cricket" mantra that helped the Proteas score a then world record 438-9 to chase down a seemingly insurmountable Australian total at the Wanderers in Johannesburg in March.

Pakistan, a brilliantly talented but unpredictable side, are banking on pace spearhead Shoaib Akhtar and in-form batsman Mohammad Yousuf to win despite the absence of their banned captain Inzamam-ul-Haq.

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