2013 ICC Champions Trophy

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Australia 'focused on Champions Trophy'

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Michael Clarke will return home from England in September either gutted at an Ashes defeat or exultant at a triumph. But Clarke flew out of Sydney on Sunday night conscious that Australia's near four-month tour begins not with the main attraction but with a curtain-raiser that has as its reward another prize: the Champions Trophy. And while it is not in the same league as the Ashes in terms of prestige, Clarke believes a strong start to the trip is important to Australia's Test chances.

Australia's one-day and Test squad members will arrive in England from various ports of call - some have been at home, some at the IPL, some in county cricket and coach Mickey Arthur has been in South Africa. Some have been playing cricket, some have been training at home. Seven members of the Champions Trophy group will also take part in the Ashes, and Clarke hopes the tour begins on a high, especially when Australia meet England in a group match at Edgbaston on June 8.

"I'm looking forward to certainly getting stuck into some cricket," Clarke told reporters in Sydney on Sunday night. "It's been a good break for guys to train, get fit, get some batting and bowling under their belts, but I think everyone, the players, media, the public, are well and truly looking forward to seeing some cricket. Obviously the build-up and the talk is going to be about the Ashes, but for us as a team we're very focused on the Champions Trophy.

"Our record is outstanding in the Champions Trophy, we've won the last couple. This is the last time we'll have a Champions Trophy tournament so the motivation is going to be there. If we can have success in this one-day tournament and drag that confidence and momentum into the first Test I think that will be very handy."

Australia begin with two Champions Trophy warm-up matches against West Indies and India in Cardiff on Saturday and Tuesday next week, before they move on to the tournament proper and group clashes with England, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Should they make it to the final, they will have only a few days before their first Ashes warm-up, a four-day fixture against Somerset beginning on June 26.

Another tour match against Worcestershire follows in the lead-up to the first Test and those two games will be important for Australia to assess their best XI and particularly their batting line-up, given the struggles of the batsmen in India and the presence of five potential openers in the Ashes party. Clarke said Australia would take their challenges as they came, first with the one-day tournament and then with the Ashes.

"We know we've got a lot of work to do to have success in both sections of this tour, in regards to the Champions Trophy and then the Ashes," he said. "We've got to play some amazing cricket, but I know all the players are up for the challenge.''

ICC Champions Trophy 2013: Saeed Ajmal excited about game against India

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The showdown is still some days away but Pakistan spinner Saeed Ajmal is already geared up for the clash against India in the upcoming Champions Trophy, saying the match is as big and as eagerly anticipated as the final.

The India-Pakistan clash is scheduled for June 15 in the event starting June 6. The wily Pakistani spinner insisted that playing a match against India is always fantastic.

"The atmosphere, wherever we play, is always electric and I'm sure the fans lucky enough to be at Edgbaston and all those watching the telecast around the world will not be disappointed by this match. It's like a mini-final within the tournament," he said.

Ajmal pointed out that both sides are very strong and at the end of the day, the team which handles the pressure will be victorious.

"We have the psychological advantage having defeated India in their own backyard in the one-day series and I'm confident that we can defeat them in Birmingham," he said in an interview to the Pakpassion.net website.

Asked about the absence of big names from the Indian team Ajmal said it was pretty normal for the players to come and go.

"Big names are replaced by lesser known players who then turn into big names and then they get replaced. The cycle of cricket goes on, no cricketer lasts forever and no cricketer has a God-given right to be picked again and again.

"If a player is out of form or struggling for form then it's only right that they are replaced by a player who is in form," he explained.

South Africa depart with understated expectations

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South Africa go into the Champions Trophy with realistic expectations, especially without a few key figures in the fold.

The hotel adjacent to Johannesburg's international airport is familiar with South African cricket's expectations. Whenever the team departs on an overseas assignment, they hold their media engagements in one of its conference rooms.

At such times the room is filled with a great sense of hope. Over the last two years, it has heard men like Corrie van Zyl and Graeme Smith talk about their goals, and make promises to bring back something for the South African public to be proud of. More times than not, they have fulfilled those aspirations.

The only time they have let the fans down is after major tournaments. So much so, that the hotel is also used to South African cricket's disappointment, because it is the same venue used for the press conference when they return home.

If the wood panelled walls could talk, they would tell of words like "dark mist," which Gary Kirsten used after the team returned empty handed after the 2012 World Twenty20. He did not make the mistake of saying this time will be different.

"I couldn't tell you we are going to win the event but we will give it our best shot," Kirsten said. "I don't do this job to win trophies even though I know I am measured by that. I love the work. I am trying to make the team the best they can be. If that ends in us making more progress than we have in previous knockout tournaments, I will be happy."

For the first time in recent memory, South Africa embarked on an ICC tournament without pledging to come back winners. It was a sobering status update: this team are not favourites.

They are without two of their most important players in Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith. They have a leader and wicketkeeper who is still finding his feet in AB de Villiers. A middle order with two players, Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy, who have not been active in weeks. A coach that will soon be on the way out come August, and a squad that has not been together in almost two months. So to expect them to come back with the trophy may be a little too much to expect.

Kirsten is not talking a big game because he doesn't have too much to advertise. All he hopes is that South Africa give a respectable account of themselves, and that amounts to enough for the people back home. "We're going to use the processes that we've used throughout the two years, which has brought us some good success in the Test arena. We are going to build on that as much as possible. There is no success package on the market that we can use to win. You need a bit of luck and [for] things to go your way. I am confident that we can compete."

In an attempt to replicate the results they produced on their tour of England last year, South Africa will once again enlist the services of explorer Mike Horn to be with the team while they spend five days in Amsterdam. Even though the team will only have half the time there with Horn, and have to play a warm-up match against the Netherlands on Friday, Kirsten hopes the camp will have a similar effect on the group.

"We will spend the majority of the time doing skills work. It will be important for guys who have played in the IPL to bring match intensity. We will rely on them heavily for that. We will also use the time to get out of the hype of the tournament in the UK," he said. "The significance of the Switzerland journey was the way we were able to pull together as a team. We're looking forward to being together again."

The squad that will assemble in the Netherlands on Monday is a very different unit to the one that beat England in a three-Test series last year. It is does not have the same edge of experience, but it does carry great potential. Whether that will bear fruit this time around remains to be seen.

What Kirsten said is that he cannot guarantee it will, and he does not think South Africa cricket will be in crisis if it does not. The room at the hotel will be waiting to bear witness as to whether a less pressurised approach will work this time.