There was a time when the cricket world waited with bated breath for the World Cup. It came, quite predictably, once every four years, with no mega event having satiated your appetite. Each event was preceded by a lengthy build-up, both on and off the field. While teams had their task cut out, picking the best team for the conditions and then fine-tuning aspects of training, it was off the field where anticipation was highest. For a sizeable set of cricketers, the World Cup was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snatch glory. You had to be at the peak of your powers, and the conditions had to suit your style of play for you to even have a shot at glory. For captains and coaches, the World Cup was a double-edged sword. The four-year cycle provided an apt timeline to be judged on results, and a bad showing in the World Cup often meant being shown the door.
In the brave new world of 2016, however, the existing order has been turned on its head. The ICC World Twenty20, a tournament that has never been played in India before, is expecting to smash all viewership and attendance records. There has been little time for build-up, with teams still playing against each other in bilateral and other series, even as the tournament opener beckons. For the players, though, when the coin goes up for the toss the first time on March 8, the opportunity before them is a considerably different one.With the Indian Premier League to follow, and leagues around the world (from the Big Bash to the Ram Slam to the Pakistan Super League) welcoming players of all shapes and kinds with generous pay cheques, the ICC World Twenty20 has plenty to offer, apart from the glory of winning. The next big ticket surprise to take the T20 leagues by storm could well emerge from an area where it is least expected.
That India face the added pressure of playing at home goes without saying. However, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team will take comfort from the fact that they became the first team to break the hoodoo of not winning at home, when they sealed the deal in Mumbai, in 2011. Already, the chatter in cricket circles is that India will go deep into the tournament; certainly, anything short of an appearance in the final will be treated as a failing, with the pitches expected to ideally suit India’s style of Twenty20 play. Virender Sehwag, certainly retired but active enough to be playing in the Masters Champions League, was typically forthcoming. “We have batsmen like Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and bowlers like Jasprit Bumrah, Ashish Nehra and the spin attack of Jadeja and Ashwin. I think India are the favourites for the competition,” said Sehwag. While his team-mates will certainly be grateful for the vote of confidence, they would have been quite happy not have the extra pressure of the favourites tags being applied on them. Nothing puts a target on the back of a team, when it comes to the competition, as being talked up in this manner before a mega event. “Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have become a good pair and if they stay there for the first seven or eight overs, nobody can stop India,” said Sehwag, in all seriousness, before adding a rider that he was now “becoming a cricket expert.”
If Sehwag is the kind to deliver grave predictions with a deadpan expression, there are others who have achieved the opposite result, albeit entirely unintentionally. The West Indies have struggled more than any other major international team in the past few months, and the unending squabble between the players and the cricket board has ensured they will be without the services of Kieran Pollard and Sunil Narine, two blockbuster T20 stars. Yet, Sir Curtley Ambrose, the bowling coach of the West Indies team, believes his men could well stun the rest of the competition and go all the way to win the tournament. “Look at the team that we have – half of the team are in demand across the world for different T20 leagues. So you may find one guy here, maybe two in this league and two in another league, but we have all at once, so we have a great chance of winning this tournament,” said Ambrose. Not too many experts will agree with this assessment, but confidence ahead of a tournament is no bad thing. For his part, Darren Sammy, the West Indies captain, was no less optimistic: “The fact that we’ve won a World Cup means we know how to get it done… this year, we’re coming in with eight members from the team that won the World T20 (in 2012), so the squad is not lacking in experience.”
Meanwhile, in Dhaka, there is excitement in the Pakistani camp over the return of Mohammad Amir, who has shrugged off five years in exile with the kind of pace and swing that made him one of the scariest bowlers in the game, before he headed off to the dark side. Waqar Younis, the bowling coach, is already talking about their Big Match, against India in Dharamshala (although a political storm has erupted over the venue). “The India game is of course important. People are keen and eager to watch that match. It is important to break the jinx in the World Cup. It has been important all these years, to be honest,” says Waqar, referring to the fact that Pakistan have never managed to beat India in a World Cup match of any kind. Why let the weight of history and statistics force you to curb your enthusiasm, though? “If you go back to the ‘90s, we were unbeatable, we always knew it would be an easy game against India, but it’s the other way now. IPL has really helped India, playing at home has really helped them. They are a fitter team today. We have to work hard, we still have a fine bowling lineup but we need runs on the board. If we can get that, then it will be a different story.”
If you’re beginning to see a trend here, let us not stop you. Ask Shane Bond, the former New Zealand quick, who has forayed into coaching, and he believes there’s no reason why his team cannot go all the way, while conceding that others may have the more obvious advantages. “There’s no doubt we have a good team. We’re going to need a little bit of luck and play off our heads to win this tournament. Clearly, India and Pakistan will be favourites in those conditions, but in the T20 format, you never know,” says Bond. “If a Martin Guptill or a Kane Williamson play out of their skins and Adam Milne has a great tournament, then maybe… I think cricket at the moment is as wide open as it has ever been. Everyone’s dominating in their own conditions, and it’s pretty tough. That’s what makes it exciting. The World Cup at home in New Zealand last year, nobody really knew who would win it. It’s the same for this one.”
If you skipped around the globe a bit more, stopping at the other cricketing outposts, you will find the same sentiment emerging. Going into the World Twenty20, every team genuinely believes that the field is wide open. Shortening the format of the game has ensured that the difference in skill level between teams, and relative strengths and weaknesses, have shrunk to such an extent that there are no real favourites. Of course, what this has also done is to allow each team to believe that they are in with the best possible chance of winning.
The evolution of this tournament into what it is today did not take place overnight. To begin with, Australia, who were the most dominant limited-overs team back in 2008, treated the action as a bit of hit and giggle. India looked at the format so indulgently that three of the biggest names in the game – Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly – voluntarily opted out of what was then perceived to be a young man’s game. India have now wound the clock back (literally and figuratively) for this edition, building their team around a core of veterans. From Ashish Nehra to Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh, India are fielding a team that would have been comfortable in the early 2000s, a decade and a half later. This, you might say, is only the latest challengeTwenty20 cricket has thrown to conventional wisdom. By the time the forthcoming tournament is done and dusted, you can be sure there will be many others sent scrambling back to the drawing board to try and make sense of this cricketing madness.