ICC World Cup 2012 Preview
Another World Cup in the subcontinent! However deflationary the exclamation, our intent is quite the opposite. A fifth world championship (sixth, if you count the 2009 Champions Trophy) in five years reflects just how pervasive the game has come to be, which makes it obligatory for moralistic quill-wielders to fan interest in view of possible overkill.
The notion of overkill, though, exists only in the minds of cynics. Figures across Twenty20 tournaments and leagues indicate that the watching public - despite predictions of imminent TRP doom - continue to unwrap their TV dinners to the accompaniment of Trishal's now-ubiquitous horn. We know the IPL is hugely popular, the Big Bash and other fledgeling leagues taking wing elsewhere; even perennial struggler Bangladesh has a Twenty20 hoopla to its name.
Nine years since it was conceived by the ECB, the brevity of Twenty20 has reengineered the profession and commerce of cricket. Administrators have discovered in it a packageable, saleable golden goose, whose eggs they're showing all the keenness in the world to scrape out.
Players have been lent a hand and can now plan their careers on personal whim - no longer is servility to national boards a prerequisite to the pursuit of wealth. And there is a serious amount of money swirling around, much more - as a redoubtable social commentator observed - than the game needs, its magnitude dictating course of events through the greed of man.
In an ideal world the wealth from Twenty20 would sustain Tests and ODIs, a format whose relevance was somewhat in question until the 2011 World Cup gave it a shot in the arm. But an ideal world is an imaginary concept and cricket's most succinct version may eventually attain primacy over it's prolonged cousins. In more ways than one, its easy money and palatability has begun to alter, for good or bad, the overall structure of things via overcrowded scheduling, changed priorities, altered mindsets, bruised bodies and custom-moulded audiences.
The ICC World T20
Where does this situate a Twenty20 World Cup, a fourth - if you need any reminding - in five years and one that comes after the dizzying high of 2011's pinnacle ODI event? Even the ICC World T20 - as it's called - has transformed over half a decade. From an experimental sortie that soared over and beyond expectation to the Sri Lankan carnival that will be telecast to an audience of 1.5 billion across 200 countries - the tournament is a robust, frothy head on top of two seasons of soap-operatic domestic T20 activity.
The tournament began with a made to made-to-order India-Pakistan final in 2007. India's win - achieved without Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly and under rookie captain MS Dhoni - floored its cricket fraternity, one which had until then viewed Twenty20 with casual suspicion. The success sent imaginary cash registers ringing in the heads of officials. The IPL was conceived and unleashed upon the sub-continent, a spectacle as tantalising - and as meretricious - as curves sheathed in silk. It was really India's 2007 triumph that pushed Twenty20 to its menacing momentum.
Pakistan reedeemed itself by winning the second edition in England, after the tournament had begun with unfancied Netherlands toppling the hosts by four wickets at Lord's - thanks to Stuart Broad's brainless overthrow. England turned it around in the West Indies in 2010, largely through Man of the Tournament Kevin Pietersen, their best bat across formats, a lover of Twenty20 and who, for reasons bizarre, finds himself out of the team this time.
So, the defending champions set about their task without their most prolific scorer. Will that be motivation enough for a bunch of whiners to reprise their 2010 act? Highly doubtful, but in Eoin Morgan and Graeme Swann, in Johnny Bairstow and Stuart Broad, in Jos Buttler and Craig Kieswetter, the Poms have the professional firepower to place themselves in a position from where to have a tilt, however slim, at regaining the title.
No Clear Favourite
Sticking one's neck out for a winner is hazardous at the best of times. In this format it's sheer stupidity. And in a tournament expected to be one of the most open in recent times - what with an battalion of domestic league mercenaries running amok across national teams - predicting a champion is impossible.
India have the batting might and pedigree; Pakistan have the experience and the most eclectic bowling attack; Sri Lanka are nigh unbeatable in their backyard; the West Indies, with match-winners such as Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine, appear to be customised for hit-and-giggle dos.
Anybody, save for the Associate also-rans, could go all the way, and nothing would please the watching public more than a West Indian win, finally a glimpse of hope, finally a throwback to the heady days of the early 1980s. With short games bridging the gap between good and mediocre sides, matches could change course drastically within the span of a few overs.
"It's the sort of format where nothing can be taken for granted. We have seen one ball change the whole game. The idea is to do well for all the 40 overs. That is all that matters," said India skipper Dhoni, who has already won ODI and Twenty20 World Cups.
Can Dhoni add another Trophy here? India's middle order is in ship shape. Spin appears to be in safe hands. If there are areas of concern they lie with an iffy opening pair and lack of an outright bowling spearhead (Zaheer Khan is not really one for Twenty20 cricket!). India also has Virat Kohli who has made a habit of chasing down impossible scores, although he did have a poor IPL this year, and all-rounder Irfan Pathan, who has been in good form.
On evidence of the practice games, the tournament is likely to be a low-scoring one. The conditions in Sri Lanka are expected not only to favour spin, but also allow movement in the air. But if the home side is being considered a hot favourite, it has little to do with dust bowls being reared for a televised massacre.
"Be ready for a stiff breeze in Hambantota, swing and seam in Pallekele and a good batting surface at the Premadasa (stadium) in Colombo," warned former Sri Lanka star Kumar Sangakkara. "Each venue will have a different challenge and sides will have to adjust accordingly. It will make the tournament more exciting."
The hosts' MSD (Mahela, Sanga, Dilshan) are in rip-roaring form, Lasith Malinga is always a threat and the recent experience of playing in the SLPL is likely to prove beneficial to the young nucleus of players (Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Jeevan Mendis, Lahiru Thirimanne, Thisara Perera) who now man crucial positions in the Lankan setup.
Australia's Poor Record
For Australia, this is the only crown they haven't worn, having lost the 2010 final to England. The Aussies presently lie below Ireland in the Twenty20 rankings, which is more a reflection on the redundancy of the assessing system than anything else. In David Warner, they have a firebrand opener, in Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc, a strong young pace bowling partnership, and an explosive middle order comprising David Hussey and Cameron White.
Still, it is to the usual suspects Australia would look to for inspiration: Michael Hussey, 37, played a blinder (60, 24b) in last editions's semifinal against Pakistan and is still going strong, while Brad Hogg, 41, should revel in the conditions.
Veterans abound elsewhere too. South Africa will be served by all-rounder Jacques Kallis, 37, who is making a comeback to T20 Internationals. The Proteas have attacking openers, incendiary all-rounders, blistering fast bowlers, an economical offie - all well-versed, thanks to the IPL, in the ways of this part of the world.
South Africa, who boast the best winning percentage across three World Cups, would be wary of tackling slow bowling during high-pressure chases, but really, there is no reason why they shoudn't win. In fact, there is no reason why any of the top eight teams shouldn't have an equal chance of lifting the trophy.
The Pakistan Threat
Always a threat, Pakistan have made two finals and a semifinal, an indicator of how comfortable their wild lot is in this oscillatory format. Here too, expect the unexpected from this vastly talented bunch, especially from the classy opener Imran Nazir, the confounding Saeed Ajmal and the dangerous Umar Gul.
That we haven't even mentioned Shahid Afridi, the Akmal brothers and Sohail Tanveer should tell you just how brimming with raw talent the team is. But Pakistan would need to watch out against middle-order implosions.
Even New Zealand, with a section of players having played in the SLPL - are not to be taken lightly. Their army of bits and pieces cricketers has overreached so regularly in big tournaments that another surprise showing wouldn't be a surprise after all.
The 12 teams have been split in four groups of three each in the preliminary league, with the top two from each group advancing to the Super Eights, which is when the real deal begins. The initial groups, save for the designated group of 'death' (Pakistan, New Zealand and Bangladesh), should follow seedings, but the format lends itself to upsets - so count them out at your own peril.
Provided seedings are honoured at least initially (a lot depends on who wins the India-England and Sri Lanka-South Africa league matches) Group 1 of the Super Eights should constitute England, West Indies, Sri Lanka and New Zealand, with the top two making it into the semifinals.
The possible composition of Group 2 of the Super Eights is already a talking point. Former champions India and Pakistan are expected to lock horns with Australia and South Africa for the two remaining semifinal spots. From here on, it's anybody's game. But that's what it's always been - all a bit of a hit or miss. Let the sixes rain.