There’s really no way to say it without saying it. You can beat around the bush as much as you like, but the fact of the matter is that Sri Lanka starts the ICC World Twenty20 2012 as one of the strong favourites. One much bandied-about statistic sets the stage: thrice Sri Lanka has been co-hosts of a global tournament – the ICC World Cups in 1996 and 2011, and the ICC Champions Trophy 2002, and each time it has made the final, twice ending up winning. When it plays Zimbabwe in the opening game of the ICC World Twenty20 2012 in Hambantota, it will have a roaring crowd right behind it at the venue, and an entire nation watching to see how the latest campaign has begun.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium is such a recent entrant to hosting international cricket that there isn’t a massive body of work to look at for pointers on how things might unfold. The venue first hosted an international at the ICC World Cup 2011, where Sri Lanka hammered Canada by 210 runs. The next game was between similarly mismatched opposition, with Pakistan beating Kenya by 205 runs. If the gap between the teams was responsible for the results then, Sri Lanka then split two ODIs each against Australia and India. In the two T20 Internationals played here in June 2012, a combination of two quality bowling attacks and a pitch that was yet to bed down resulted in low scores.
Sri Lanka, though, is not thinking too much about the conditions, or its opponents. “The most important thing for us is to try and be positive and make sure that we back ourselves and our ability,” said Mahela Jayawardena. “Because, if we play to our potential, it should be enough for us to beat most opposition.”
Jayawardena also conceded that there was no getting away from the fact that all eyes were on his team. “I wouldn’t say that we are the favourites, but we are one of the favourites,” he conceded. “We are part of a pack of teams that could go all the way, especially if we get into a good momentum early on. We cannot put down the hype on that as we are playing at home. Sri Lanka is a cricket-crazy country where you know expectations will be very high. The people will back us, and I told the boys to try and enjoy the occasion. It’s a great to have a World Cup played in your home territory, and I told my team to enjoy the atmosphere. If we do that we’ll express ourselves much better out there.”
While one statistic points to Sri Lanka’s performance in ICC tournaments it has hosted, this is in direct conflict with another, that no home team has won the ICC World T20. “There is always a first time for everything, and maybe it’s our time to turn it around,” said Jayawardena. “That’s how we look at these tournaments, with a positive frame of mind. A lot of people have asked us about choking in the big finals. I would rather be in that situation than get knocked out in the first or second round. It means we are doing something right in big tournaments, and handling pressure well enough to get into situations from which we have a chance to win.”
Whether Zimbabwe can put itself in a similar position over the coming three weeks is anybody’s guess, but it’s happy to fly under the radar for the moment. In the shortest version of the game, the gap between strong teams and weaker ones can narrow to the point that it doesn’t really matter. This, and the element of surprise, is what Brendan Taylor will be banking on.