India can blast to victory in high-octane showcase
Cup holders are favourites to win again as England look for respect on and off the pitch in the World Twenty20 starting at Lord's today
Of the five cricket world championships in England, the host nation have been relatively successful. Or relatively unsuccessful depending on what you expect. They have never won (then they have never won anywhere) but they have twice reached a final, twice been in semi-finals and once, infamously, were eliminated at the group stage.
It is far too much to expect that England can win the ICC World Twenty20 which begins at Lord's today. Being in the final would represent progress of a kind which would make it possible to confuse their coach Andy Flower with a miracle-worker. A semi-final might represent the peak of realistic ambition, reaching the second round is a legitimate aspiration.
Elimination in the first round would prompt another bout of hand-wringing and soul searching, the two activities which it seems were specifically invented for the purposes of bemoaning the state of English cricket. Their probable second-round opponents, in the Super Eight stage, are India, South Africa and Australia. You can feel their pain even now.
This is the second world championship of the form of the game which has taken cricket by storm – from the domestic tournament in England six years ago to the establishment of the Indian Premier League barely a year ago.
India are hot favourites to retain the title they won in a spine-tingling, coruscating final in Johannesburg, though they can expect to be pushed to the wire by South Africa, Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and, if the runes fall in the right direction on a particular day, Pakistan. No logical assessment can point to an England victory but Twenty20 defies logic.
The tournament is short and sharp, which is (or was) the whole point of T20. It is being played at three venues, Lord's, The Oval and Trent Bridge and will finish on 21 June, 16 days after its start. The early part of the women's tournament, that will run simultaneously in a bold but wonderful move by the International Cricket Council, will be at Taunton. Both finals will be at Lord's and England women have it in them to be there.
Perhaps it is England's misfortune to be staging the tournament in an Ashes summer because it seems to embody the overkill of big-time cricket. Equally, it is not necessary to be fluent in management speak to know that this also represents an opportunity to embrace a new audience.
The world's top players, most of them minted as such because of their skills in Test cricket, will parade an array of skills which even five years ago were unthinkable. Batsmen will take outrageous risks with strokes of breathtaking virtuosity that have never appeared in a coaching manual, not because of any ethical objection but because they cannot be coached.
Bowlers, as has been their lot throughout history, will have to try to stem the flood and if sometimes this will have as much chance of success as rerouting the course of a river, they will never stop trying. The alternative is to drown.
England have made a contribution in this regard with their ploy in the warm-up matches of asking their right-arm seamers to bowl round the wicket, wide of the crease at an angle well outside off-stump. This reduces the scoring areas of the batsman and may create bewilderment. If it lasts for only one ball, the margins are so small as to make it worthwhile.
The host nation appear also to be making their contribution to the preservation of wicketkeeping. James Foster, not considered for the Test team for seven years largely because his batting is perceived to be too fragile, has been picked because of his immaculate keeping and his ability to stand up to bowlers of above medium pace. How perverse that something as raunchy as Twenty20 should help revive an ancient craft.
England have made a mess recently of organising global cricket events. Not only were they knocked out of the 1999 World Cup in the first round but it was badly presented and rarely engaging. In 2006 England reached the final of the Champions Trophy but the suspicion that accompanied their progress was that nobody cared, partly because they were too busy turning on their central heating.
This time it has to be different. Grounds – and they could not have chosen three better ones – should be full for most of the matches and the weather should hold. The tone of the tournament can be set today, not so much by the opening match as the opening ceremony which precedes it. Somehow, it has to fit both with this jazzy version of cricket and with the country it is being played in.
Anybody seeing India play Pakistan at The Oval the other evening would have been infected by the sheer joy of cricket in general and Twenty20 in particular. The fans will clearly buy into it, the players must.
The conclusion has to be that whatever improvements and innovations England have made, they will be insufficient to allow them to win the tournament. If there is a ball at which the captains of the mens' and womens' winning teams will be the guests of honour, the distinct possibility is that Mahendra Singh Dhoni of India, lucky chap, will be having the first dance with Charlotte Edwards of England.
Number of sixes that Pakistan hit in the last World Twenty20, the most by any team.
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