Fun format has serious issues at stake
It is an overburdened mind that cannot spare some time for revelry and, in the next three weeks in Sri Lanka, the World Twenty20 offers the international game the chance to discover its lighter side. No form of the game can promote the attraction of cricket to a new audience so quickly, nor provides such immediate appeal.
For the connoisseurs who carp that Twenty20 is a poor substitute for the intricacies of Test cricket, it is time to lighten up or look away. The two extremes of the game satisfy very different needs and it is perfectly possible to enjoy both without admitting to a personality disorder. The best players in the world have assembled for a meaningful tournament and there is fun to be had.
Quite who will win the World Twenty20 is impossible to predict with any confidence, but India, South Africa, England and West Indies have the look of semi-finalists and, with no outstanding side in the tournament, India have the capacity to beat South Africa in the final and follow up their win in the inaugural event in South Africa in 2007, a win that was greeted with an open-top bus ride through Mumbai that stopped traffic for hours, ushered in the IPL to satisfy a nation's craving for more and changed the cricketing landscape forever.
That is a reminder that there are more important issues at stake beyond the winning team. The international game, for the sake of its own future, sorely needs to re-establish its primacy with a successful World Twenty20, just as it also needs the ICC to preside over a 50-over World Cup confident in structure and purpose that can once again connect to a maximum extent with the public.
Failure to provide such a spectacle over the coming weeks will provide fuel for those who argue that Twenty20's future is best removed entirely from international cricket and left to individual countries running franchise operations, led by an unfettered IPL that, for all the excitement that it has brought for millions, will be expanded beyond the level where its presence remains good for the game.
Should franchise cricket, not just in India but in lesser leagues around the world, expand beyond the point of sanity, the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and the ability to invest wisely in the game worldwide will be severely compromised. Talk that the IPL could be expanded to 10 teams should Deccan Chargers resist attempts to exclude them is further proof that ambitions are not yet sated.
Sri Lanka's ability to deliver the show that cricket needs cannot be taken for granted especially as one of the grounds, Hambantota, stands in a sparsely-populated area a long journey from what remains a largely imaginary port city of the future - at best part a vision of the future that will not be fully realised for decades. Elephants may pull in the tourists, but for the moment cricket must make do with a white one.
There would no better time for Sri Lanka Cricket to show itself capable of putting a history of mismanagement and politicking behind it and displaying good governance. The costs of building new stadiums for the 2011 World Cup left it with debts approaching $70m, players went unpaid for months and the ICC has had to provide loans and guarantees of $2.5m to enable this tournament to go ahead. It is to be hoped the October monsoon does not intervene.
The best teams refuse to accept that the result of a Twenty20 game is largely random, and convince themselves that, more often than not, skill, instinct and ingenuity can win through. Twenty20 is no longer played half-heartedly by insecure professionals unable to suppress the belief that they were somehow demeaning themselves, but by sharp-witted cricketers awash with adventure and imagination. Twenty20, like Test cricket, is also a game of the mind - it is just a mind retuned to the need to second-guess opponents in a game where risk is not minimised but embraced.
Sri Lanka's former captain, Kumar Sangakkara, has counselled: "Be ready for a stiff breeze in Hambantota, swing and seam in Pallekele and a good batting surface at the Premadasa in Colombo. Each venue will have a different challenge and sides will have to adjust accordingly."
West Indies have not won a major tournament since the Champions Trophy in 2004 but they have not been as widely fancied for a generation - one poll on an Indian website suggested 35% of supporters tipped them to win - and their most destructive players have made an impact in the IPL and beyond.
But when they lost their opening warm-up match against Sri Lanka by nine wickets with more than four overs to spare it summed up the unpredictability of the tournament, not just because of the nature of Twenty20 but because of the nature of the teams. Never have so many teams packed with so much destruction inspired so little confidence. West Indies might need to reverse that result against Sri Lanka in Pallekele in the Super Eights to reach the last four.
This World Twenty20 is so well balanced that it is easier to find reasons why teams will not succeed. India will be at home in Sri Lanka, they are buoyant after the return of Yuvraj Singh and they are not quite so weighed down by expectation, certainly not after the way they succumbed to Pakistan in their warm-up match when victory seemed assured. It will take a couple of thumping wins to give them the air of victors.
The worries expressed in India that Sri Lanka's pitches might not turn as much as they would like are understandable, but they will be spared Pallekele, where the quicks might be most effective, throughout the tournament and that must be to their advantage.
India's Super Eights group is potentially daunting, likely also to comprise South Africa, Pakistan and Australia. South Africa are challengers and have tag-teamed the No. 1 ranking with England in recent weeks, but they still seem to have a stronger suit in the Test and ODI formats.
That anticipated grouping surely lessens Australia's chance of putting behind them the embarrassment of being ranked, earlier this month, below Ireland. The Big Bash League will doubtless invigorate their Twenty20 cricket, and enable them to recover from their initial reluctance to embrace the format, but they will need huge runs from Shane Watson and David Warner at the top of the order to make a strong showing.
Pakistan, for all their heroics against India in their most meaningful of pre-tournament friendlies, do not look as strong as when they won World Twenty20 in England in 2009, and have yet to settle to a pattern under a relatively new coach, Dav Whatmore.
The announcement by the PCB's chairman, Zaka Ashraf, that their director-general (cricket), Javed Miandad, has been sent to Sri Lanka "to look into some team issues" does not inspire confidence that the coach and his new captain, Mohammad Hafeez, have successfully implanted a new vision of unity and purpose. Pakistan should trust Whatmore and Hafeez for the next two years to get on with the job.
England's concern will be that they are caught cold by Afghanistan in their opening qualifying match in Colombo on Friday. They field a young top order of T20 specialists, none of them regulars in the Test side, and, assuming Afghanistan are dispensed with, their seam attack should go well in Pallekele. Their challenge will become most daunting on their return to Colombo for the semi-finals.
With New Zealand, for once, not presented as dark horses - Bangladesh must fancy their chances of a minor upset in Pallekele on Friday - England, West Indies and the hosts, Sri Lanka, look likely to be in the shake-up for the two semi-final spots.
Sri Lanka do not inspire confidence even though they have reached three global finals since winning the 1996 World Cup. They have played only nine Twenty20 internationals at home, all since 2009, and have won only three of them. It will take an entire kit bag of wicked Malinga yorkers to arrest a record like that.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo