Some might say preparation is slightly overvalued when it comes to Twenty20 cricket, but nothing can be farther from the truth. Twenty20 cricket might not have as much scope for tactical versatility as Test cricket, or even the 50-over game might, but to write off practice and preparation as of little significance is at once foolhardy and naïve.
The time for preparation, however, is almost over. Edition four of the ICC World Twenty20 will kick off at the Mahinda Rajapakasa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota on Tuesday when Sri Lanka, the host nation, takes on Zimbabwe in easily the most open of the ICC World Twenty20s thus far.
Eleven practice games over the last four days have merely served to reiterate this point. There have been victories for Ireland over Bangladesh, for England, the defending champions, against Australia, and for Pakistan over India. South Africa, whose only global silverware dates back to the ICC Champions Trophy in 1998, was forced to dig deep to quell a strong challenge from New Zealand while the West Indies, one of the favourites to go all the way this time around, was soundly put in its place by Sri Lanka, riding on the strength of its spin resources.
Interestingly enough, only one of the 12 warm-up games – the last one is slated for Wednesday, between England and Pakistan – was scheduled at a ground that will actually host the ICC World Twenty20, thereby offering very little even to the teams by way of what to expect, come competition-time.
Monday’s showdown between India and Pakistan at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo suggested that the Premadasa has come some way from producing slow, low surfaces on which stroke-making was a hazardous proposition. More than 370 runs were scored in 39.1 overs for eight wickets lost; six of those wickets did go the spinners, but that was mainly because of the high skill sets that Saeed Ajmal and R Ashwin possess, not because the pitch held any demons as such.
Spin is invariably expected to play a vital role in matches played on the sub-continent, but that expectation might be belied this time around. The MRICS in Hambantota and the Pallekele International Stadium in Pallekele too have provided excellent batting surfaces this season, and while the possibility of the tracks in Pallekele and Colombo slowing down with wear and tear as the tournament progresses cannot be ruled out, spin is unlikely to have as massive a say in the early stages as is widely believed.
That’s one of the main reasons why the ICC World Twenty20 2012 wears such a completely even look. Most teams from outside the sub-continent will welcome the level-playing field; sides such as the West Indies and New Zealand, which has always punched above its weight in ICC events, will quietly fancy their chances of making reasonable headway.
Which will be the last team standing? Only a very brave man or a very silly one will hazard a guess even before a ball is bowled, especially in a format where fortunes can change in the space of one over. Suffice to say that Twenty20 is the one version that bridges the gulf between teams, so while a Bangladesh or an Ireland will not realistically expect to go the distance, they can play spoilers if they fuse all elements of their game together on a particular day.
For Afghanistan, to merely qualify for the ICC World Twenty20 2010 in the West Indies was a victory of sorts. Better off for that experience, Afghanistan will try to be competitive, fully aware that it has some distance to traverse before seriously threatening the big boys.
Sri Lanka will remain a threat, not only because most of its players are coming off the Sri Lanka Premier League but because it has consistently been the one team that has bucked the trend of the host nation buckling under the pressure of expectations. It will be matched for exuberance and effervescence by Pakistan, unpredictable, mercurial and enigmatic, millstones in another version but undisputed virtues in the Twenty20 game.
The West Indies, with its plethora of explosive match-winners, will be desperate to end a 33-year wait for a global title, while Australia won’t take kindly to the fact that the only silverware missing from its bursting cupboard of riches is the ICC World Twenty20 crown. India has had a miserable time in ICC World Twenty20s after its unexpected triumph in the inaugural edition in South Africa, while England will be desperate to prove that success in the Caribbean in 2010 was no flash in the pan, even if it is without Paul Collingwood, the then captain, and Kevin Pietersen, the player of that tournament.
South Africa has approached nearly every ICC event in the last decade as one of the strong favourites and it will be no different this time around, and New Zealand showed in Chennai last week that if Brendon McCullum can get going, it will be no pushover. Each of these eight teams will believe it has the firepower and the experience to go all the way, though each will also be aware that to take Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ireland and Zimbabwe lightly is little short of an invitation to disaster.
With the women’s event set to begin on September 26, it promises to be a fantastic three weeks of entertainment.