T20 World Cup preview: No clear favourite as Super 12s kick off
The shock elimination of two-time champions West Indies at the first time of asking is the big talking point despite not a ball being bowled in the Super 12s of the T20 World Cup. Even a format that appears most suited to their carefree, almost careless, brand of cricket has proved a bridge too far for Nicholas Pooran’s men, who must indulge in serious soul-searching in a bid to arrest an alarming slide that doesn’t augur well for world cricket.
West Indies’ nine-wicket drubbing at the hands of Ireland on Friday (October 21) provides the perfect backdrop to the glorious uncertainties of the 20-over game which bridges the gulf between teams like no other. Not that the remaining protagonists needed any reminding about the potential banana skins on the way, but the Caribbeans’ ouster wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the other teams as the serious part of the competition gets cracking at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday (October 22).
Hosts and defending champions Australia have the honour of kicking off the Super 12s against their little brothers from across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand, in a repeat of last year’s final. Neither side carries tremendously encouraging form into the competition, though both have stellar records in global events and Australia, in particular, know how to raise their game when it comes to the crunch. Placed alongside T20 powerhouses England, who meet Afghanistan in Perth later on Sunday, Aaron Finch and Kane Williamson respectively will both eye a positive start if only because momentum plays such an important role in this ultra-abridged version.
England will be among the teams to watch out for, more so since the return to the T20 set-up of Test captain Ben Stokes. The talismanic all-rounder is three cricketers rolled in one, capable of turning matches in any of the three disciplines in double quick time. His presence allows Jos Buttler greater flexibility in selecting the playing XI which, allied with the bruising firepower at their disposal, should allow England to tide over any bowling inadequacies more often than not.
Much of the debate in Australia currently revolves around when, rather than whether, Cricket Australia (CA) should revoke its lifetime captaincy ban on David Warner in the aftermath of the sandpapergate controversy in Cape Town in March 2017. It’s more than likely that the team would have insulated itself from that conundrum, because that’s precisely the distraction it can do without ahead of such a major event. Warner has shown in the past that he can compartmentalise effectively, and if he can get off to cracking starts of the kind he is renowned for, Australia will be a brutal force, what with heavy-duty power-hitting in store through the top and middle orders in the form of Cameron Green, Glenn Maxwell and the exciting Tom David, among others.
Australia and England will be heavily favoured to advance to the semis from Group 1, though New Zealand and Afghanistan, as well as Sri Lanka, who braved it through the first phase, will have other ideas.
Things aren’t as clear-cut in Group 2, populated by automatic qualifiers India, Pakistan, South Africa and Bangladesh, who have since been joined by Netherlands and Zimbabwe. All eyes, understandably, will be on the India-Pakistan showstopper at the gargantuan Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on Sunday, when close to 90,000 fans are expected to cram the venue in the hope that the weather stays clear and the predicted rain doesn’t play spoilsport.
Until last year, Pakistan had never defeated India in a World Cup. Buoyed by having broken the duck emphatically with a 10-wicket win in Dubai, Babar Azam’s men will be plotting an encore, well aware that they will run into an Indian side that has since revisited its approach to the 20-over game and which has embraced all-out aggression with the bat as their calling card.
Pakistan will be buoyed by the return of Shaheen Shah Afridi, the 6 foot 5 left-arm paceman whose dismissals of Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul within the first 13 deliveries of the match last year proved the difference. Afridi is short on match practice, but he can’t but be energised by the stage and the opponent because for all the lip service players from both sides pay by calling it ‘just another match’, India vs Pakistan can’t ever be only that.
South Africa, perennial bridesmaids at World Cups and adept at discovering ways to self-destruct, will quietly fancy their chances this time around. The rejuvenation of David Miller has had a big part in their rejigged thought process. Out of favour and somewhat confused over his role in the team, Miller has received a fresh lease of life after being installed as the permanent No. 4 in the Gujarat Titans line-up during IPL 2022. His exceptional run was pivotal to the Titans emerging triumphant in their first shot at the IPL, and in a belated recognition of the immense potential for damage he possesses, South Africa too have thrust greater responsibility on his seasoned shoulders.
Quinton de Kock at the top is another dangerous customer, though South Africa will ponder long and hard about the status of designated skipper Temba Bavuma. The little right-hander was woefully out of form on the tour of India earlier this month after four months away with an elbow injury, and he will be desperate to lead from the front if he is desirous of getting the best out of his side, which is fortified by a superb pace attack marshalled by Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi.
Bangladesh will hope to queer the pitch though they might find the conditions not entirely to their liking. Shakib Al Hasan’s comeback as captain could just be the fillip they require, but minus three of their most experienced cricketers of all time – former captains Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah – they might find the going tougher than they anticipate.
The so-called ‘lesser’ lights in the field will target an upset or two, at the most, for, despite this format offering a reasonable level-playing field, to sustain form and punch above the weight for four or five games in a row isn’t easy. As ever, it’s the big boys that will scrap for ultimate honours; it will take a brave person to pick one clear favourite and stick with their choice, no matter what.
Also read: T20 World Cup: Full list of commentators