By Shashank Kishore in Sylhet
England and Australia start as favourites, but all ten sides in the fray have the firepower to cause upsets
The women have adhered to interview requests, attended events organised by the sponsors and have been given formal send-off parties by their boards to take part in the battle for T20 supremacy alongside the men. In 2009, the International Cricket Council designed the inaugural edition of the Women's World Twenty20 to run alongside the men's format to help popularise the event.
The end result was a crisp tournament that concluded in 11 days with eight teams participating. The grand finale was played to packed galleries at Lord's, with England, captained by Charlotte Edwards, winning the inaugural edition. England's triumph at the time somewhat made up for the exit of Paul Collingwood's team from the league stages.
The success of that event set the tone for what was to become a set pattern. Australia beat New Zealand by three runs in front of a carnival crowd at the Kensington Oval in 2010, and then defended its title – a feat yet to be achieved by any of the men’s teams – at the R Premadasa Stadium in October 2012, pipping England by four runs in a see-saw battle.
Quite obviously, there are heightened expectations this time around.
Rough indications are that the 2014 edition could have a potential reach of at least 1.8 billion viewers, the highest-ever estimate for the T20 extravaganza. While the group stage matches of the Women's World Twenty20 won't be televised, the teams qualifying for the semifinals and the final will have an opportunity to showcase their skills to a worldwide audience.
The tournament features 10 teams for the first time, with Bangladesh and Ireland making their debuts. Bangladesh, on account of being the host, gained a direct entry. Pakistan and Sri Lanka emerged as the top two sides across the qualifying round held in August 2013, while Ireland pipped the Netherlands by the slimmest of margins to grab the final spot after a two-run win, quite the opposite of what transpired on Friday (March 21) with the men’s teams, with the Netherlands pulling off a sensational chase against Ireland to qualify for the Super 10s.
The usual suspects
On paper, it’s hard to look beyond England and Australia. Both sides have enough experience to boast of, and are coming off an exhaustive summer, with England retaining the Wooden Ball – the Women's Ashes – in January.
The rivalry between the two is unparalleled, and if it were to boil down to England and Australia at a crunch moment, England might have a slight edge. The side has been consistent over the years and had the measure of Australia in recent times with victory in the Women’s Ashes in August and January.
Despite that, one can't put it beyond The Southern Stars, as the Australian team is referred to commonly, to bounce back. But it will have to do so without two of its most seasoned campaigners in Lisa Sthalekar and Jodie Fields – who both played a pivotal part in their 2012 victory as well as the ICC Women's World Cup last year.
Sthalekar, the allrounder, retired in February last year after the twin success at the ICC Women's World Twenty20 and the ICC Women's World Cup within a span of six months, while Fields, who led the side in both those tournaments, has opted out this time around following a season disrupted by injuries.
The other teams stack up a step below the traditional powerhouses. India made the semifinals of the first two editions, but has slipped under the radar somewhat. Its outing in 2012 didn't pan out as the team would have liked, as it lost each of its three group stage matches before avoiding the ignominy of having to go through the qualifying route for the 2014 edition by beating Sri Lanka in a playoff game. In the World Cup last year, India bowed out of the group stages despite a strong start.
The squad has undergone a change, with only four members who were a part of the 2012 edition being retained. Among them are Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur, the captain and vice-captain, who will shepherd an inexperienced batting line-up, while Jhulan Goswami, the medium pacer, and Gouher Sultana, the left-arm spinner, will be the torchbearers of the bowling attack.
An enterprising brand of cricket in this format is the most ideal. And if the sides happen to be New Zealand and West Indies, there wouldn't be a dearth of excitement as the two teams have injected adrenaline and new vigour into the tournament in the past.
Over the years, the two sides have emerged serious contenders across both the 20-over and the 50-over formats. New Zealand, led by Suzie Bates, finished third at the World Cup last year, while West Indies lost in the final.
Bates, a double international, is the side's best batter, and in Sophie Devine and Sara McGlashan, New Zealand has the batting ammunition to topple any side. West Indies, meanwhile, bring to the table a fearless approach, that is well exhibited by the brutal power-hitting of Stafanie Taylor and Deandra Dottin. Add to it the calmness of Merissa Aguilleira, the captain, and it has the resources to go all the way.
In a tournament that will be played in sub-continental conditions, one can't put it beyond Pakistan and Sri Lanka to cause a stir. Pakistan is improving quickly, and will be led once again by the inspirational Sana Mir, while Sri Lanka, who surprised many by its giant-killing act at the World Cup last year (where it beat England and knocked India out), will look to cash in on familiarity of the conditions. Whether both teams have the ammunition to go all the way remains to be seen, but the wealth of talent on display will definitely not go unnoticed.
Where does that leave South Africa? The Mignon du Preez-led side has lost out on some valuable on-field preparation time over the last month due to rainy weather back home. But the experience of having played a tri-series in hot and humid January in Qatar against Pakistan and Ireland, where it finished second, will hold it in good stead. The selectors have retained faith in the core group that featured in the last two global events, a positive for any team.
The squads have arrived, the off-field activities and team bonding exercises have concluded. It's time to play for the pride of their nations and do battle over the course of the next two weeks. Australia will be aiming for its third successive world title, and any team capable of stopping the defending champion will have taken small steps towards world domination.