The ICC World T20 starts today in Hambantota. As a format for a worldwide tournament it has no superior in either cricket or any other sport. Eighteen days of furious action in which pretty much every game will have something riding on it has the capacity to restore cricket to the front pages of sports sections after a pretty dismal English summer.
Sub-continental fans may argue that cricket never went away, but in the former powerhouses of England, Australia and the West Indies there hasn’t been much to cheer about. That could all change over the next few weeks as a uniquely wide open competition promises to deliver excitement, close finishes, and plenty of staring at the skies in a desperate attempt to keep the regular October monsoon at bay.
The shortest format of the game increases the likelihood of upsets, and with Afghanistan and Ireland seasoned practioners at T20 the opportunity for someone to make a name, and maybe a big franchise contract in the IPL, Big Bash or even some as yet unconfirmed US All Stars World and Universe Series Melee, beckons.
It is a widely held belief that this fourth edition of the ICC World T20 is the most wide open yet. But I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that Zimbabwe, Ireland, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and New Zealand don’t have it in them to make it through to the knock out stages.
The holders England are thought to be in turmoil with problems off the field and a poor record on the sub-continent. But the loss of Kevin Pietersen may well be no more significant than the continued absence of Marcus Trescothick who could genuinely have challenged Chris Gayle as the undisputed king of T20 had his health not kept him out of international cricket for the last six years. In Alex Hales, Johnny Bairstow, Eoin Morgan and Joss Butler they have enough power up the order to set challenging totals. Steven Finn and Jade Dernbach could yet prove the most potent new ball pair around.
The problem for England lies in their approach. It is no coincidence that their ODI and T20 matches over the last year have almost all been walk overs by one side or the other. The batsmen are encouraged to play without fear which sounds fine, but tends to result it either match winning totals or pitiful collapses. They won’t retain their trophy but they have it in them to make the semi-finals.
Australia find themselves vying with Ireland for 9th spot in the rankings, but Hussey and Warner are formidable and experienced players. Who could forget Hussey’s dismantling of Pakistan in the semi-final of the last tournament? In addition, they have excellent potential in the seam bowling department. Mitchell Starc is a T20 star on the verge of enormous riches and Cummins is genuinely rapid. But they have no spin bowlers and unless Warner fires repeatedly they won’t make the semis.
South Africa should challenge but we say that every time. Amla, Kallis and De Villiers may be the modern day answer to the three W’s, while Steyn and Morkel know their own games inside out, but I don’t think they know their best combinations elsewhere in the team and de Villiers may just be a little too inexperienced to captain his side to victory.
For me the winners will come from either West Indies, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or India. Sri Lanka have four star performers in Dilshan, Sangakarra, Malinga and Jayawardene. Mahela had an astounding tournament last time out in the Caribbean. He was the only batsmen to master the slow, tedious surface in Guyana and at home I expect him to play more than one match winning innings. With support from Mathews the Lankans could spring a surprise.
Pakistan possess in Umar Gul and Saeed Ajmal the two most effective T20 bowlers around. It pains me to repeat the cliché, but they are the most unpredictable side in world cricket, at least in limited overs formats. As long as they pin none of their hopes on the increasingly pointless Shahid Afridi, however, they could make the final. Or they may crash out in horrendous circumstances way before then.
Which leaves as serious contenders India and the West Indies. A lot of smart money is being put on the Windies. Trinidad & Tobago have impressed hugely at the Champions League and with Pollard, Narine and both Bravos supporting the magnificent Chris Gayle they have the chance to make T20 their own. But counting against them is a recent history of failure. Can they make it over the line? I’d love it if they did, but last ditch heartbreak looks more likely.
So, India. India, India superpower. We all know everything there is to know about this side packed with multi-millionaire superstars. What is more sensual than Sehwag playing a front foot cut for six over cover, or Kohli placing his sweetly timed drives and flicks past the agonized outstretched arms of humiliated infielders spitting the unforgiving Sri Lankan dust from their mouths? They have spinners to die for, a wicket keeper batsman who likes nothing better than a perfectly orchestrated last gasp run chase and Zaheer Khan. It was arguably the left armer Ryan Sidebottom who made the most significant bowling contribution in the Caribbean for England. Left armers have been winning T20 matches around the world for their teams, and in the final reckoning I expect a mop topped, snarling Zaheer to snatch victory from the distraught Windians. By one run. Off the last ball.
You can catch every ball of every game (with the exception of Australia v Ireland and South Africa v Zimbabwe) live on www.testmatchsofa.com starting today (September 17th) with Sri Lanka v Zimbabwe at 1445BST.