Column | T20 World Cup - long tournament could prove to be a turn off

Mitchell Marsh
Mitchell Marsh-led Australia are one of the favourites. File photo: AFP/Randy Brooks

The International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup that got underway on Saturday and runs till the end of the month is unique in many ways. This is the first championship of this kind to be held in the USA, with the West Indies, a Test playing member of ICC since 1920s, acting as the co-hosts. The tournament will feature 20 teams, thus expanding the  participation from 16 in the previous edition. The only thing that has not changed is the mandatory India-Pakistan match at the group stage, which has become a regular fixture in all ICC championships. The marquee clash, which draws television audience across the globe, is crucial for the sponsors, who may otherwise find it difficult to realise the revenues that they hoped for when they decided to throw their hats into the ring to extend financial support for the event.

The championship has come a long way from the first time it was conducted 17 years ago in South Africa. India, who were reluctant participants in the inaugural edition, used the positive vibes and momentum generated inside the country following their triumph to create the most popular and richest cricket league in the world. The success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) led to the birth of similar ventures in most of the major cricket playing nations and even some outside it, even as India used the substantial financial muscle it gained from this to dominate international cricket administration through the ICC. However, the national side has not been able to reproduce the magic of 2007, with the result that this trophy has not found a place in the cupboard of the Board of Conduct of Cricket in India since 2009 when the second edition was held.

The tournament is structured, this time around, in a manner that the initial league phase, where teams are placed in four groups of five sides each, is followed by a Super Eight stage. The top two teams from each group will proceed to the Super Eight, where again they will be placed in two pools of four each. The top two from each pool will qualify for the semifinals, where the two matches will be played on knockout basis, followed by the final at Bridgetown, Barbados, on June 29. Thus, this is also a long championship where players and squads are required to maintain their form, fitness and focus for close to a month, if they are to emerge as champions.

Based on the present form and previous experience one expects India and Pakistan to qualify from Group A, England and Australia from Group B, the West Indies and New Zealand from Group C and South Africa and Sri Lanka from Group D. Though Bangladesh, Ireland, Afghanistan and even the Netherlands are capable of causing an occasional upset or two, one cannot imagine seeing them sustain a campaign that could propel them into to Super Eight stage or beyond it.

As always, India start as one of the major contenders for the title. The players are match fit, after completing the two-month long IPL and skipper Rohit Sharma will be earnestly looking forward to leading the side to a title triumph in an ICC tournament, something that has eluded him so far. The side appears well balanced though the bowling attack leans more towards spinners, with a many as four tweakers in the squad. Virat Kohli was the top run-getter in IPL 2024, while Suryakumar Yadav is still considered as the best batsman in the world in this version of the game, despite his recent tryst with an injury. Jasprit Bumrah, who leads the pace unit, too is in excellent form, though his support appears to be slightly weak, going by the performances in the IPL. The only worry line is the fluctuating form of some of the top players, which, if not corrected, can prove to huge drag on the fortunes of the side.

Rohit Sharma
Skipper Rohit Sharma will be desperate to end India's title drought. File photo: X@BCCI via PTI

Pakistan continues to be a mercurial side, with plenty of individual performers, who do not always get along and fire as an unit. In skipper Babar Azam, they have one of the best batsmen in white-ball cricket and he can prove to be more than a handful once he gets going. Bowling line-up led by pacers Shaheen Afridi and Haris Rauf, with the experienced left-arm spinner Imad Wasim for support, has the potential to run through sides. If past experiences are any indications, the side always promises a lot but performances on the big stage have rarely matched the potential carried by the individual palyers. It remains to be seen whether Babar can manage a miracle and get them back to their winning ways.

Australia start as a favourite in all ICC championships and there is no exception to this general principle this time as well. The Mitchell Marsh-led side carries a right blend of youth and experience. In Travis Head, they have one of the most destructive opening batsmen in the game, if his exploits in IPL are any indication. On the bowling side, Michael Starc continues to be in great form and he has World Cup-winning teammates Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood for company. They have also included left-arm spinner Ashton Agar and leggie Adam Zappa in the squad, should the wickets assist the spinners.

England, the reigning champions, will be looking forward to wiping out their dismal performances in the ICC World Cup held in India last year. Jos Buttler, their captain and opening batsman, has been in great form of late, besides showing extraordinary levels of consistency in T20 cricket during the last two years. He is supported by Jonny Bairstow, Harry Brook and Phil Salt. Veteran Moeen Ali brings the option of an all-rounder besides adding to the variety of spin bowling on offer. Bowling, though, appears as a weak link as Jofra Archer and Chris Jordan, the mainline pacers are returning after a lay off brought by injuries.

Jos Buttler
Jos Buttler will be keen to guide England to another triumph. Photo: AFP/Paul Ellis

The West Indies have the flair and potential to last the distance in this version of the game, as can be seen from the fact that they have won the title twice - in 2012 and 2016. However, internecine wrangling between the board and players, which prevents a star such as Sunil Narine to stay away from, had proved the Achilles heel for this side in the past. It remains to be seen whether skipper Rovman Powell will be able to motivate and guide the side to reach the knockout stage. 

New Zealand is another side capable of lasting the distance though luck had deserted the Kiwis at crucial junctures in the past. In Kane Williamson, they not only have one of the finest batsmen in the game, but also the best captain currently playing international cricket. Their batting has depth, beside presence of batsmen capable of shredding attacks comprehensively. But their strength lies in bowling, where Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Lockie Ferguson are ably supported by the spinners Ish Sodhi and Michael Santner. 

South Africa came close to shaking off the tag of chokers in the ODI World Cup last year when they gave Australia a scare in the last-four stage. It is one of the greatest tragedies of contemporary cricket that they have not been able to win a world title after their readmission to international cricket in 1991, despite having a wealth of talent and bringing in modern methods and thought processes that enriched the game. Sri Lanka, on the other hand,  is a side going through a major transitional phase and are yet to get in their groove after the departure of veterans who occupied key slots in the side for a long time. Matheesha Pathirana appears an excellent prospect with the ball, as is Kusal Mendis with the bat, and this championship will tell us whether this duo can help script a bright future for Sri Lankan cricket.

It would be hazardous to guess the sides that will reach the semifinals, given both the nature of the game and the fact that many of the matches will be played on unknown surfaces. One interesting aspect that comes to the fore while analysing the sides is that almost all teams have invested in strengthening the spin department. This is not only an acknowledgment of the increased relevance of spin bowling in this version of the game but also indicates that most team managements expect tracks to offer help to the tweakers. 

One final aspect is regarding the length of the championship. The first edition of this World Cup had 12 teams and lasted for 13 days. While the present one has 20 sides and is scheduled to take place over 29 days. One can understand the need to accommodate more teams, given the ICC’s push towards  popularising the sport in all parts of the world. However, spreading the tournament to close a month may pose difficulties in sustaining spectator interest. Though more matches spread over more days may bring in higher revenue in the short run, diminishing interest in the sport by the followers may be a serious long term consequence of this move.

Nothing shall give the Indian fans more thrill than an India-Australia final. A comprehensive victory over the Aussies in the ultimate match will not only seal the triumph but also serve as a fitting revenge for the trauma suffered last year at Ahmedabad. I do wish and pray that for this conclusion to this edition of the championship!

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a retired bureaucrat)

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