Cricket carnival returns to Caribbean

New Zealand take on Sri Lanka in the opening match as another Twenty20 extravaganza begins today

Cricket carnival returns to Caribbean

 Lasith Malinga will spearhead the Sri Lankan attack in the World T20 beginning on Friday. AFP

Rewind to the 2007 50-over World Cup, and you will realise that the apprehensions aren’t unfounded. Be it on the organisational front or performances on the field, it was a massive disappointment. Of course, there were flashes of individual brilliance but they could hardly salvage the unpleasant occurrences throughout the tournament, which hit the headlines for on-field disasters and off-field tragedy before climaxing in a farcical finish with Australia winning the final against Sri Lanka in near-darkness.

As if the death of Pakistani coach Bob Woolmer under mysterious circumstances wasn’t a blow big enough came the early ouster of India and Pakistan, taking away much of the sheen from the competition. Much more compact and to be held in fewer venues, the World T20 offers the West Indians the perfect opportunity to atone for their lapses in 2007.

Of the 12 participating teams, nine are Test-playing nations and the other three – rookies Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe -- came through via the qualifiers. While Afghanistan will attract many an eyeball simply because of their fairytale run, Ireland have the experience of playing on the big stage. Just how dangerous Zimbabwe can be in this format was once again underlined when they stunned Australia in a warm-up match two days back.

Much of the tournament’s success will depend on how the Big Four – India, Pakistan, South Africa and Australia – fare. The second edition of the World T20 in England was efficient without being spectacular. Having missed the title narrowly in the inaugural year, Pakistan made up for their disappointment to take home the trophy, riding on mercurial all-rounder Shahid Afridi’s exploits.

The man who scripted their triumph at Lord’s will be at the helm of affairs when Pakistan step out to defend their crown. Unpredictable as they might be, the defending champions have been hit hard by internal squabbles, allegations of match-fixing, disciplinary issues and injuries to key players. It will be interesting to see how Afridi, not the best example to emulate given his on-field misdemeanours, pulls his team along.

India don’t have such worries. Led by the super cool Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who master-minded the Chennai Super Kings’ title run in IPL III, the former champs are one of the strongest contenders to the throne. Grouped alongside minnows Afghanistan and South Africa, one would expect India to bury not just the ghosts of England, but also the Caribbean where they were knocked out of the 2007 World Cup in the group stage itself.

With a handful of their own players turning out in the IPL, South Africa’s preparations are just fine, though their captain Graeme Smith has barely managed to recover from a finger injury. The Proteas have precious little ICC silverware in their cabinet to justify their obvious talent; only time will tell if they can redeem themselves or if they choke once again.

Australia’s story appears similar when it comes to T20 cricket. For all their achievements in the 50-over format, the Aussies’ performance in the shortest format is anything but flattering, especially in World T20s. In the first edition, they crashed out in the semifinals and in the second, they couldn’t even make that grade. Under new captain Michael Clarke, the 50-over kings will be desperate to reverse the trend.

On the face of it, the biggest challenge to Pakistan retaining the title would come from India, Australia and South Africa, but ignore Sri Lanka and New Zealand at your own peril. The fact that three sub-continental teams have shared the first two places in the last two events is an indicator of the Asian supremacy in this format while New Zealand, with an array of utility players, are capable of springing a surprise.

As for England, they have lost more crunch games than South Africa but they are never referred to as chokers. There perhaps lies the story -- they can be contenders but never seriously so.

Last but not the least, the hosts themselves. No one will be surprised if the Windies don’t put up a good show, but it won’t come as a shocker either if they are the last men standing. Chris Gayle’s team has some serious talent -- remember Kieron Pollard? -- and if they are able to make the most of home advantage, it might just turn out to be a cricket carnival in the Caribbean.

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