It’s the first marquee clash of the ICC World Twenty20 2012. It’s not the first showdown between Test-playing nations – of that, there have been a few – but when Australia takes on West Indies at the R Premadasa Stadium on Saturday night, it will pit two serious contenders for the title against each other, in a Group B league encounter.
Australia, with a command performance against Ireland on Wednesday, has one foot in the Super Eights, but all eyes will be on West Indies, a powerhouse in the Twenty20 format with the potential to go all the way.
Few teams possess the all-round firepower that West Indies does. Its two most influential performers will be at either end of the batting spectrum, but beyond Chris Gayle and Sunil Narine, there is a wealth of destructive talent Darren Sammy has at his disposal.
Not often in recent memory has the West Indies gone into a major competition as a genuine challenger for the title. It did win the ICC Champions Trophy 2004 in England, but for the most part, it has struggled to replicate the glory days when it swept all before it.
Now, with the coming together of sensational all-round talent, West Indies has every reason to believe that if it can maintain intensity, consistency and focus for a three-week period, it can walk away with another World title under its belt.
Having found himself on the sidelines for 16 months after disagreements with the West Indies Cricket Board, Gayle has made a telling impact since his comeback in England in June. Easily the most explosive opener in world cricket today, he will hold the key to West Indian fortunes. How well he stands up to and takes on the Australian pace attack of Shane Watson, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins will go a long way towards dictating the momentum. Australia’s first big challenge will be to get rid of Gayle as quickly as possible, because if he spends any length of time out in the middle, he will punish any attack in the world.
The emergence of Narine as a genuine wicket-taker has lent more teeth to the West Indian bowling. Narine tied Australia up in knots during the five-match One-Day International series at home earlier this year. Australia will since have done its homework, but it will realise that while it’s one thing to pore over videos and work out his variations, it’s quite another to actually play him out even if the batsman has picked him, either from the hand or off the pitch.
There is, of course, more to West Indies than Gayle and Narine, but there is no denying the impact these two will have on any game of cricket, and especially in the Twenty20 format. Allied with the fact that the West Indies has a plethora of glittering all-rounders – Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell – no team in the competition can afford to let its guard down for even a second.
All teams will, therefore, watch with interest what tactics the Australians adopt. Mickey Arthur, the Australian coach, spoke of a couple of plans his team has for Gayle. Foremost among them will be a diet of short-pitched bowling aimed at the chest, but the Australian pacers will have to be on top of their game because the slightest indiscretion will be punished ruthlessly.
In Brad Hogg, at 41 the oldest player in the competition, Australia has its own version of a mystery spinner, though Hogg has been a bit under the weather for the last couple of days. He did train on Friday, and George Bailey, the captain, was optimistic that he would come through on Saturday. Hogg has come to establish himself as a key cog in the Twenty20 wheel with his left-arm Chinaman bowling. He will test West Indies’ technique against the turning ball, another contest that teams in the competition will try to draw inferences from.
Australia did little wrong during its seven-wicket rout of Ireland. It will need no reminding that it has yet to win the ICC World Twenty20, or that a solitary lapse in concentration in a tournament of this nature can prove decisive. This is the face-off between the irresistible force and the immovable object. Talk about Saturday night fever.