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The World T20 has been simmering during its qualifying round, but the big boys have descended and Bangladesh have almost made the Super 10. It's about to boil over
March 20, 2014
The first few days have established the atmosphere nicely, aided by Bangladesh's sashaying around their own party looking like a million dollars, but the hubbub is about to increase noticeably. The A-listers have arrived, hoovering up the remaining canapés, distracting the snappers and showing off their entourages. Only the bolshevism shown by Ireland looks like preventing the Super 10 stage from resembling a Full Members' club, as notions of equality and opportunity are replaced by the established batting order.
The World T20, in all its unpredictable, telegenic, effervescent glory, has established itself as a tournament that gives with both hands: the games come thick and fast, high in calorie content and E-numbers, but the weight is quickly shed. With a few vigorous blows a batsman is back in form, while bowlers can "leave it all on the field" during a maximum of four overs, safe in the knowledge that they are expected to get tonked anyway. Supporters gorge themselves on boundaries and ambient pop (sic), then go home, move on.
Neither is it just a warm-up for the forthcoming IPL. International rivalry has always been cricket's strongest conduit of support and the near certainty that the hosts will qualify for the Super 10 stage sets up Dhaka as the jumping-est joint in the country. Group 2, while forbiddingly tough, will allow Bangladesh the opportunity to have a fresh crack at snooty neighbours India and Pakistan, who will resume their own argument over the garden hedge in a hotly anticipated opening to the second round on Friday evening.
The port city of Chittagong, once known for its Portuguese settlements, will welcome hopefuls from Europe, Africa and Australia, though Sri Lanka's local knowledge will be expected to help them chart a course through Group 1. At around the same time, an expanded women's tournament will also begin in the more genteel surroundings of the new Sylhet stadium, located in a tea garden.
Bangladesh and Ireland will be making their maiden appearances at the Women's World T20, with ten teams contesting 27 matches over 15 days. Two-time defending champions Australia are in the opposite pot to England, winners of the inaugural competition in 2009, with West Indies, New Zealand and India likely to also come into contention. The semi-finals and finals will again take place as double-headers with the men's events, though in a country with a female prime minister and where crowds in the thousands turned out to watch games at the women's World Cup Qualifier in 2011, healthy attendances will be hoped for throughout.
In the men's competition, it is simpler to suggest who probably won't win it than who will. In four previous tournaments, there have been four different winners, which is indicative of T20's capacity for mischief. The specialist planning and bespoke technique teams come up with for the format has made it something akin to hit 'n goggle but good old-fashioned confidence and momentum will play a key role in whoever carries off the title this time.
Of the eight sides entering at the second round, England and South Africa look the most peaky, especially given the conditions. India's recent results have also been poor and they have only played one T20 international since December 2012. A few weeks ago, West Indies, the defending champions, would have also been bracketed with the long-shots, having suffered a fifth T20 defeat in a row, against Ireland, but the signs in the warm-ups games suggest that they are rousing themselves at the perfect time once again.
Sri Lanka, ranked No. 1 in the world, certainly have form. They have an unenviable record of failing in recent finals - including at the last World T20 at home - but will gain confidence from putting away mercurial geniuses Pakistan in the Asia Cup earlier this month. Will the impending retirements of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene inspire a dash to victory or could the emotion cause Sri Lanka to choke up again?
Pakistan have been the best team in the World T20's short history, never failing to make the semi-finals. The charge against them is that they bowl with brio but bat like brioche (soft, light and easy to tear apart). The latter tendency came to the fore again on Wednesday, dismissed for 71 by South Africa in Fatullah. Best get them out of the way beforehand, eh?
According to the bookmakers, the mantle of favourites apparently lies with Australia, perhaps draped especially around the broad shoulders of Aaron Finch, one of the few men who can rival Chris Gayle in a destruction derby. The loss of Mitchell Johnson to injury will deny them a valuable weapon on slower pitches, however, and exacting questions will be asked of their spin options, which include 43-year-old Brad Hogg (international debut: 1996) and 20-year-old James Muirhead (international debut: January 2014). Then there is New Zealand, who a wise man never discounts.
The Commonwealth Games are known as the "friendly games" and so far Bangladesh has united in a display of colour and confraternity to put on the "friendly T20". There are likely to be some flashes of enmity on the field but T20's spirit of hedonism should quickly subsume all other emotions. The first five days of the tournament served something of a noble purpose; now, at least until the knockout stages begin, it is time for guilty pleasures.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Alan Gardner
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala