The third Twenty20 Cup gets underway today in Karachi and in the true tradition of modern events, promises to be bigger, better, richer and more glamorous than ever before. If it can match the success of the previous two editions though, it will be a success enough.
Sialkot Stallions will be defending the title, having beaten the Faisalabad Wolves, winners of the inaugural title, last year in Karachi. And from the 13 teams competing, the Stallions will be among the favourites again to retain the title. Their line-up is, on paper, the strongest of any, including captain Imran Nazir, Shoaib Malik and left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman. It also boasts the two bowlers who made the difference last year, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Mohammad Asif.
The competition might be tougher this year as most teams are able to call on national team players following a directive from the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). The only absentee is likely to be Inzamam-ul-Haq, who would've captained the Multan Tigers but hasn't yet fully recovered from a finger injury he sustained during the recent ODI series against West Indies. Mohammad Yousuf will be available to lead the Lahore Lions for preliminary games before he sets off to Saudi Arabia to perform the Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj.
Nevertheless, a star-studded six-day event awaits, held across three venues in the city and culminating in the final on December 26, at the National Stadium. Shahid Afridi, a Twenty20 player long before the format was conceived, will captain the Karachi Dolphins, no doubt hoping to send a reminder out to national selectors of his ODI value before an important international season. Other big name leaders include Younis Khan, who will be leading the Peshawar Panthers and Shoaib Akhtar who will continue his comeback as captain of the Islamabad Leopards.
Entry to the matches, as always is free, though the PCB are keen to avoid a repeat of the chaos that engulfed finals day last year. Then, the final itself was held up for nearly two hours due to crowd trouble in Karachi and the traditional music concert - a Twenty20 staple the world over - had to be cancelled. But a PCB spokesman has confirmed that there will be tighter security this year to avoid the "mishaps from last year."
As well as greater security, there will also be greater rewards. The winners are expected to receive Rs 1 million as prize money this year, almost double the amount from last year. The remaining cash awards, for individual as well as team honours, have received similar boosts. Like last year, the matches are also being telecast live, although this time on a local sports channel.
Group A - Faisalabad Wolves, Karachi Dolphins, Lahore Eagles, Abbotabad Rhinos
Group B - Sialkot Stallions, Hyderabad Hawks, Karachi Zebras
Group C - Multan Tigers, Peshawar Panthers, Islamabad Leopards
Group D - Lahore Lions, Rawalpindi Rams, Quetta Bears