New Delhi – Twenty20 cricket’s showpiece tournament begins in earnest Tuesday as India, once so sniffy about the glitzy World T20, get the group stages under way for the first time on home soil.
The build-up has been marred by rows over security for Pakistan and the late release of tickets, while the holders Sri Lanka are mired in turmoil.
But the controversies have done little to dampen the fervour of Indian fans who believe skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni has a date with destiny at the April 3 final at Kolkata’s iconic Eden Gardens.
India, hosting the tournament for the first time, begin the group stages with a match in Nagpur against New Zealand on Tuesday night.
Dhoni is expected to retire after the tournament and his team will be desperate to give him a fairytale send-off, five years after he led them to victory on home soil in the 50-over World Cup.
The man known as ‘Captain Cool’ is trying to keep expectations in check, saying the 2007 champions “are looking to make a slow and steady progress, rather than think(ing) too far ahead”.
But retired opener Virender Sehwag, Dhoni’s team-mate in the 2011 World Cup triumph, reflected the overwhelming mood of confidence when he said he was “99 percent certain” India would clinch a second World T20 title.
– T20 ‘circus’ –
Dhoni was handed the T20 captaincy for the inaugural tournament in South Africa in 2007 when established stars such as Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid stayed at home.
India’s board, worried about the impact of Twenty20 cricket on the 50-over game, only reluctantly agreed to send a team to ensure the right to host the 2011 World Cup.
One senior board official lamented the tournament would be “a circus and our players will be clowns”, according to The Times of India.
The 2007 triumph, all the sweeter as it came over arch-rivals Pakistan, transformed the board’s perception of the game and spurred it into creating the money-spinning Indian Premier League (IPL).
The fireworks and dancing girls that are integral to an evening’s entertainment at the IPL should be even more prominent in the World T20.
T20 matches involving India are guaranteed sell-outs and the format’s popularity has put question marks over the future of Test cricket.
After 10 wins in their last 11 games, few teams have begun a tournament as such strong favourites and India don’t have many obvious weaknesses.
Powerful openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan have hit a purple patch, building platforms that allow star batsman Virat Kohli to let rip.
Off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin should thrive on home wickets and paceman Mohammed Shami’s comeback after lengthy injury problems is a major boon.
“This is a pretty formidable side at the moment and I think the all-around ability of this team is what excites me,” said Dravid.
But the former skipper said the high number of players with IPL experience meant a lot of teams were in with a shout, and he tipped the new-look England to make an impact with the likes of Joe Root in their ranks.
“England, the way they played in the last year or so, they’ve played… a more aggressive brand of cricket — whether it’s with the bat and ball — and the results are already beginning to show,” he said.
– Champions struggle –
South Africa may be in decline with premier bowler Dale Steyn struggling for fitness, while the “chokers” tag which stems from a run of world cup heartaches hangs heavy. But in AB de Villiers, they possess arguably the game’s most lethal batsman.
His main rival for that title, Chris Gayle, will be the West Indies’ chief weapon as they try to prove they are still a force in T20 cricket despite their decline in Tests.
Australia will also look to batter opponents into submission, boosted by David Warner and Glenn Maxwell’s recent record stand of 161 against South Africa. But Steve Smith’s bowlers lack experience.
New Zealand, beaten by Australia in last year’s ODI World Cup final, have been weakened by last month’s retirement of talismanic skipper Brendon McCullum.
Sri Lanka, winners last time in 2014, have also struggled since the retirement of star batsmen Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. They have changed their captain and coach since the turn of the year.
Pakistan have been widely written off and their preparations were hit by their delayed departure in a row over the venue of Saturday’s match against India, which has been shifted from Dharamsala to Kolkata.
Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who topped their groups in the preliminary stage which ended on Sunday, complete the line-up.