The eighth edition of the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup kicked off on Sunday in Australia. Though minnows Namibia stunned former champions Sri Lanka in the official start of the championship, the more serious action would start only from Saturday when the Super 12 matches begin. The four sides that finished at the bottom in the Super 12 stage of the last World Cup (Sri Lanka, West indies, Namibia and Scotland) were relegated to the qualifers this time. They are joined at this stage by the top four teams from the global qualifiers (the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Zimbabwe and the Netherlands). The matches among these eight sides, who are placed in two pools, would take place from Sunday to Friday and the top two teams from each would qualify for the Super 12 stage.
It remains a temptation to indulge in crystal ball gazing before the start of a championship of this nature to predict the winner. With so little separating the sides and given the nature of the game wherein one bad over can make all the difference between victory and defeat any prophecy tends to be a hazardous one. The history of the championship till date also suggests that forecasting the outcome is riddled with risks. However, indulging in this exercise gives one an opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of individual teams and take stock of where they stand before the action starts.
The hosts Australia are also the reigning champions, though they are surprisingly ranked only at No. 6 in the ICC rankings for T20I sides. Aussies have never been able to stamp their supremacy over other sides in this version of the game, as can be evidenced from the fact that they could win the title only once during the last 15 years. However, Aaron Finch's men are no pushovers and their performance during the tour of India last month showed that they have the potential to repeat the their Cup-winning saga of the previous year. Their USP is the presence of two top class all-rounders in Mitchell Marsh and Glenn Maxwell, who are capable of explosive performances that can swing the fortunes their way. The batting line-up led by Steve Smith and a sharp bowling attack consisting of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood bring a combination of experience and skill which very few sides would be able to match.
New Zealand, the finalists in the last edition, would be looking forward to including their name in the list of winners of this tournament. In Kane Williamson, they have one of the most experienced and astute skippers in international cricket, besides being one of the best batsmen of this generation. Their fast bowlers -- Trent Boult, Lockie Ferguson, Tim Southee and Adam Milne -- are arguably the best in the business in any form of cricket but their batting, except for Williamson, has a fragile look around it. The length to which they will go in the championship depends on the runs that their batsmen will be able to put on the board.
Two-time champions West Indies are going through a churning process and have made 12 changes to the side that fared dismally in last edition. The side under Nicholas Pooran has an inexperienced look with familiar names such as Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Jason Holder, Kieron Pollard, Sunil Narine and Andre Russell not figuring in it. The decision to replace the experienced Shimron Hetmyer, who missed even his rescheduled flight on account of “family reasons” shows that the West Indies cricket administration has placed priority on bringing discipline among the top players, who have, hitherto, been dictating terms to them. Their past performances tell us that it will be perilous to underestimate the explosive cricketers from the Caribbean islands who need just a spark to rediscover the magic that saw them become the only team to win the title twice.
England have been on a roll in Test cricket ever since Brendon McCullum took over as the coach of the side and introduced a new style, popularly known as 'Bazball'. This saw England adopt an aggressive approach, pushing for a win even in situations where defeat appeared likely, with surprisingly positive results. The defending ODI World Cup champions will be looking to add this trophy also to their cupboard. The return of Ben Stokes, who missed the last edition citing personal reasons, would add muscle to the side, both with the bat and ball. However, Joe Buttler and his teammates will certainly miss the presence of the explosive Jason Roy, who was dropped on account of indifferent form, and Jofra Archer and Johny Bairstow, both sidelined due to injuries.
Sri Lanka have been languishing at the bottom of the heap in ICC rankings in all versions of the game, figuring at No. 8 position in both ODIs and T20Is. However, they shocked the cricketing world by coming up from behind to win the recent Asia Cup through a masterful performance but the shock defeat at the hands of Namibia would have come as a rude wake-up call for the islanders. They are a side seeking to get back to the centerstage of international cricket and will spare no efforts in their attempt to climb to the top of the pole. The travails at home on account of financial crisis only seems to have reinforced their gumption and determination. Skipper Dasun Shanaka and his boys will realise that this is their best chance to bring glory to a nation starved of good tidings in the recent past.
South Africa remains the only major side that has not figured in the finals of either of the two World Cups. Temba Bevuma- led squad looks thin on experience and will also miss the services of all-rounder Dwayne Pretorius who was ruled out of the championship following an injury suffered during the recently concluded tour of India. The Proteas are unlikely to be named as the side most fancied to win the tournament by any of the leading observers of the game.
Pakistan remains a mercurial team with an overdose of talent but a short supply of big-match temperament. This was seen most recently during the Asia Cup where they lost to Sri Lanka, despite being the odds on favourites. Skipper Babar Azam has grown as one of the best batsmen in contemporary cricket while the pace bowling trio of Shaheen Afridi, Haris Rauf and Mohammad Hasnain will be more than a handful on the hard bouncy pitches in Australia. Their weak link is the middle order. It also remains to be seen whether Babar is able to mould this bunch of exciting players into a fighting unit in the manner that Imran Khan did 30 years ago, when the side lifted the ODI World Cup Down Under.
India, the winners of the first edition of the championship, presently tops the ICC rankings in this version of the game, which should give them an edge over the sides in normal circumstances. However, injuries to fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah and all rounder Ravindra Jadeja are setbacks that will have a bearing on the side’s performance. India’s bowling, especially at the death, appears brittle while the batting is a bit too top heavy. One gets the lingering feeling that Indian selectors erred in leaving behind Sanju Samson, a batsman in top form who gets going from the very first ball he faces, which makes him an invaluable asset in the middle order. This places added responsibility on the shoulders of Suryakumar Yadav, the in-form batsman, and Hardik Pandya, the explosive all-rounder, to help the team tide over tricky positions.
As can be seen from the above, the championship starts without any clear favourites. All the teams discussed above stand a good chance of making it to the last four stage, after which it is only a question of who holds the nerve better on the given day. A lot will also depend on the manner in which the teams adjust to the playing conditions in Australia which is known for the fast pitches that offer plenty of bounce and large outfields. Another important aspect is the travel across the seven venues which are located in different corners of this continent, which itself has four time zones!
The situation, as detailed above, holds the promise of excellent cricket in the offing, with closely-fought games between evenly matched sides going down to the wire, with plenty of suspense and close finishes. Let us sit back and enjoy the exciting fare on the offer and wish Team India good luck in their endeavour to bring back the trophy that they last won in 2007.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)