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No favourite, no underdog at World T20

The quality that abounds within a majority of the top sides makes it extremely tough to make any predictions

No favourite, no underdog at World T20 - Cricket News
For India to replicate its heroics of seven years back, it must show an aggression and an intent that has been conspicuously absent overseas in recent times.

It’s the one global tournament, which has had a different winner every single time; it’s the only world title that doesn’t adorn Australia’s cupboard. Limited-overs’ cricket’s newest, most exciting competition has invariably been the most open of them all in every one of its previous four editions, and there is nothing to suggest that edition five of the ICC World Twenty20, which kicks off with the qualifying competition on Sunday (March 16), will be any different.

It’s the explosive teams that have been crowned champions thus far – India unexpectedly in 2007, Pakistan two years later, England in the Caribbean in 2010 on the back of Kevin Pietersen’s pyrotechnics, and West Indies in the last edition when Marlon Samuels uncorked the innings of a lifetime and a sensational assault on Lasith Malinga to beard the Lankan lion in its own den.

Which team will be the last one standing at Sher-e-Bangla Stadium on April 6 is open to conjecture. At any world event in any sport, winner-picking is an exercise fraught with danger and potential embarrassment. In a format as fickle as the 20-over game, where fortunes can change in the space of a couple of overs, to saddle a side with the ‘favourite’ status is hardly judicious, and particularly so given the quality that abounds within a majority of the top sides.

It will be fair to say that Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s India doesn’t begin as the overwhelming, or even marginal, favourite. Following its stirring run to the title in the inaugural edition in South Africa, India hasn't even made it to the semifinals in the three succeeding World T20s, falling well short of expectations and potential despite more than adequate exposure to the format in the shape of the Indian Premier League.

Of all the major teams, India plays the least T20 Internationals. Between the last World T20, when one debilitating defeat to Australia ushered it out of the tournament, and now, India has played just four T20Is; it managed a solitary 20-over international through all of 2013, and while there is no denying its familiarity with the nuances and demands of T20 cricket, no team can function effectively as a unit unless it plays a reasonable quantum of matches together.

In 2007, no one gave India – young, vibrant and enthusiastic but also short on experience and relatively unexposed to the 20-over game – a ghost of a chance. Whether the lack of the weight of expectations played its part is a moot question; in helpful conditions, India’s quicker bowlers were a class apart, while the young batsmen showed a refreshing positivity and a remarkable absence of the fear of failure, and those factors propelled it all the way to the crown.

For it to replicate its heroics of seven years back, India must show an aggression and an intent that has been conspicuously absent overseas in recent times. Dhoni insists Test and One-Day International failures on foreign patch will have no bearing on its T20 cricket and that’s how it should be; whether India believes it can go all the way, and whether game-changers such as Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina – both out of favour for the other, longer versions – can set diffidence and apprehension aside and bat with the freedom that can at once exhilarate, entertain and enthral could prove to be decisive.

India finds itself in a tough group – can there be anything else in T20 cricket? – with Pakistan, Australia, West Indies and a qualifier standing in their way. India would need to win every one of these games to guarantee themselves a place in the semifinals, a tall order given Pakistan’s all-round depth despite the absence of the towering Mohammad Irfan, Australia’s extraordinary firepower with both bat and ball, and the extreme affinity for the format that the carefree West Indies’ team has openly professed, notwithstanding the non-availability of Kieron Pollard.

Pakistan is in a race against time to get Shahid Afridi, its talismanic former captain, fit for the tournament. Largely an extremely effective legspinner over the last several years as his batting skills deserted him, Afridi turned the clock back during the Asia Cup, also in Mirpur, earlier this month with breathtaking assaults against India and Bangladesh. Pakistan might still view runs from his bat as bonus, but the vast potential for damage Afridi possesses – even if it remains unrealised for the most part – is a microcosmic reflection of the Pakistan team as a whole.

Australia might wear an oldish look with quite a few players on the wrong side of 30 and the recalled duo of Brad Hodge and Brad Hogg among the oldest statesmen in the game, but it has the expertise, the physical fitness and the mental toughness to annex the one major piece of silverware missing from its cabinet. Aaron Finch and David Warner form an opening combine designed to send shivers down the spine of the best bowlers in the business, the middle order is less beefy only in comparison and the bowling is a mix of pace and guile, a winning combination at the best of times but somewhat negated by the pitches on which the competition will be played.

West Indies has lost a bit of the aura following its dramatic triumph two years back in Colombo, with Chris Gayle having dropped off the radar and Pollard recovering from surgery. It is, though, always dangerous and go in to a big competition as defending champions for only the second time in the last 30 years, as big a motivation as any.

Group 1 is no less intimidating, with Sri Lanka, South Africa, England and New Zealand locking horns with a yet-to-be-identified qualifier in the race for knockout berths.

Sri Lanka is supremely high on confidence, having gone unbeaten on its way to the Asia Cup crown in Bangladesh last week. Its batting has shown signs of looking beyond the big three of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene while the return to wicket-taking ways of Ajantha Mendis lends a whole new dimension to its bowling.

England would miss the effervescence of Joe Root, ruled out with a broken thumb, and Stuart Broad, the Twenty20 skipper, is battling injury. It is more a method side than anything else. It can never be taken lightly, even if it won’t exactly feel at home in Bangladesh.

South Africa is still looking for its first ICC crown since 1998, when it won the inaugural Champions Trophy – then the ICC KnockOut Trophy. It has the trappings of an excellent T20 side. Freed up from captaincy duties, AB de Villiers looms as the most innovative, most intrepid and most fearless limited-overs middle-order batsman in the world, easily the most dynamic in a line-up full of power strikers, but discount New Zealand at your own peril. The coming together of Corey Anderson and James Neesham provides a depth to both the batting and the bowling that Brendon McCullum must be delighted to have, and New Zealand have always punched above its weight in ICC events, though how well it adapts to conditions in a country where last year it lost an ODI series 4-0 will be critical to its chances.

For the first time, the World T20 will have an eight-team, two-group qualifying competition to decide which two of Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Nepal, Hong Kong, UAE, Ireland and the Netherlands make it to the main draw. There is, of course, the genuine danger of the host nation not progressing beyond the qualifying stage, what with Afghanistan – who stunned it in the Asia Cup recently – lining up as its first opponents. T20 cricket bridges the gulf between the teams more than any other format, so Afghanistan would be silently plotting a coup in the easier of the two groups, even as Zimbabwe, Ireland, the Netherlands and UAE would all quietly fancy its chances from the other pool.

It’s that kind of tournament, really. No outstanding favourite, no complete underdog. The qualifying phase will set the stage nicely for the Super 10, and what better way to set the ball rolling than India and Pakistan in the first match of the tournament proper. Bring it on, boys.

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