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The Insider's Guide to the ICC Champions Trophy

By Carlyle Laurie for CNN
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(CNN) -- The eyes of the sporting world will be on India on Sunday as the group stages of the ICC Champions Trophy get under way with the hosts facing England. Here's all you need to know about the tournament.

I thought the World Cup was cricket's top prize?

It is -- but this is the next best thing. It is even nicknamed the "mini-World Cup." It is played every two years and gives the cream of cricket a chance to perform on the same stage. The inaugural tournament was played at Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1998 and was played in a knockout format. The West Indies are the defending champions following their win over hosts England two years ago.

So what sets this tournament apart from other one-day tournaments?

Okay, so it may not have the pedigree of the World Cup or the heritage of test cricket (the five-day longer version of the sport favored by traditionalists), but the month-long carnival atmosphere that the Champions Trophy produces is enough to set the heart of a cricket fanatic racing. The tournament usually produces plenty of runs, wickets, upsets and thrilling matches. Add the fact that it is in cricket-crazy India, where the sport is a national obsession, and you have the potential for excitement galore. It's a win-win situation for the players as well, giving them a chance to experiment ahead of next year's World Cup in the Caribbean.

Have the four previous tournaments made the organizers any wiser?

They sure have. The knockout format adopted in the 1998 and 2000 competitions meant that some of the top teams went home early, to the detriment of the tournament. The ICC (the International Cricket Council -- cricket's world governing body) has addressed that this time around by introducing a group format. This year six teams -- India, Australia, England, New Zealand, Pakistan and South Africa -- were seeded into the main tournament. Four teams -- Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Zimbabwe -- were then forced to fight for the remaining two slots though a round-robin qualifier. The group-league stage will decide the semi-final line-up with the top two from each group advancing.

Hang on, you said the West Indies were the defending champions? Why should they fight for a place in the group stage?

Yes, after years in decline Brian Lara's men proved in 2004 that they could still win big tournaments. But they failed to secure a place in the top six of the ICC's one-day rankings before the cut-off date of April 1. Lara told The Times of India that they had only themselves to blame: "On one hand, it is a bit unfortunate that we are the defending champions and we will have to play the qualifying matches here. On the other hand, we should have advanced further after our 2004 victory."

But they came through the qualifying round unscathed?
No scares so far with both the West Indies and Sri Lanka qualifying comfortably. But lets face it no one really expected any heroics from minnows Bangladesh and Zimbabwe anyway. The Windies and the Sri Lankans will play off on Saturday to determine which group they go into.

Is it really a trophy for the champions?

Not quite. Although Australia have been world champions proper for nearly a decade they have failed to lift the Champions Trophy, losing in the first round in 1998 and 2000 and in the semi-finals in 2002 and 2004. Skipper Ricky Ponting says he wants to set the record straight by clinching the title this time round.

So who are the players to watch?

If I mention the names of Lara and Sachin Tendulkar you'll probably yawn, as they have already gone down in cricketing folklore. But this tournament promises to spawn a handful of youngsters who may one day fill history pages of their own. Names like Mitchell Johnson (24) of Australia, Pakistan's Mohammad Asif (23), Sri Lanka's Upul Tharanga (21) and the West Indies' Jerome Taylor (22) promise to add spice, charisma and, more importantly, excitement to the "gentleman's game" called cricket.

Indian hero Sachin Tendulkar will lead the host nation's challenge for the ICC Champions Trophy.



      October 15-29:   Group matches
        November 1-2:   Semi-finals
          November 5:   Final (Mumbai)


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