The first matches in Group B of the 2017 Champions Trophy
Saturday 3rd June
Sri Lanka v South Africa (The Oval)
Eight of Sri Lanka’s 15 players have reached the age of 30 while their captain, Angelo Mathews, their one world-class player of the moment, is in his 30th year. Sri Lanka’s shock defeat by Scotland in a practice game at Beckenham - although their batsmen did not shine as they should have - was largely the result of their bowlers being taken apart
Lasit Malinga has been one of the finest all-time white-ball bowlers - a unique one with his height, trajectory and action - but he is 33. He has been managing his four overs in the IPL for Mumbai Indians and there is a huge difference between a four-over spell and the demands of 50-over internationals. Malinga in the Champions Trophy will have to open the bowling, stay on the field, bowl another spell, then come back at the death three hours after his opening burst.
Malinga’s opening partner, Nuwan Kulasekera, who once reached No 1 in the ODI rankings, is no younger. In fact, he is 34. And even if age is not catching up with them as bowlers, it is as fielders. An ageing squad will find it especially hard to protect the distant perimeters of the Oval, where Sri Lanka play their first two qualifying games, against India and South Africa. So it is as safe a bet as any in this tournament that Sri Lanka will not qualify from their group for the semi-final. The batting line-up is still struggling for consistency in the post-Dilshan, post-Jayawardene, post-Sangakkara age. This is not the golden age of Sri Lankan cricket.
South Africa lost their warm up series against England 2-1, Without quite appearing to know their best XI. The likes of DeKock, DeVilliers and Rabada should shine this tournament but the loss of a number of squad players to overseas Kolpak contracts has shorn them of some depth and in the England games their support bowling looked very hittable while the likes of Du Plessis and Miller looked out of form with the bat.
Absolutely South Africa have the talent to win this, but the mental aptitude remains a huge question mark. However for this game, with a fast start essential for a short format competition it is one of the more comfortable starts they could have had. This is reflected in outright prices for the game with Coral Sri Lanka 4/1, South Africa 1/4 which is no value in a one off game but it would be a big surprise if South Arica did not win
Sunday 4th June
India v Pakistan (Edgbaston)
One of cricket’s big grudge matches for these two teams to open the competition with. India are defending champions with a talented squad. With plenty of batting experience and a bowling attack more suited to English conditions than it has been for some time thanks to high-quality pace options. Hardik Pandya, Ravi Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja provide genuine all-round options.
Downsides are mainly off the field with a late arrival for the tournament and a threatened boycott. Coach Anil Kumble has been forced to reapply for his job amidst reports of a rift with Kohli, who himself comes into the tournament on the back of a poor Test series against Australia and IPL season.
Always dangerous but notably inconsistent Pakistan have dangerous players such as Babar Azam with five centuries in his last 11 ODIs and teenage leg-spinner Shadab Khan who has five wickets in his first three ODIs and 10 in his first four T20s. Overall the squad has a pleasing blend of youth and experience with old hands Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik still around and players such as Sarfraz Ahmed, Azhar Ali, Wahab Riaz, Junaid Khan at their peak.
Controversy is rarely far and away with Pakistan and arrived when Umar Akmal was released from the squad after failing fitness tests. They only qualified by the tightest of margins, a couple of ranking points clear of ninth-placed West Indies and remain the lowest-ranked team in the tournament. Since the 2015 World Cup they have won only six and lost 15 of 21 games against the other seven qualifiers, including a 4-1 series defeat in England in 2016.