With no Pietersen to help, England will need all the luck in the world
Holders have little international experience and will struggle to defend a title that could well go to a fourth different team
For England to win the World Twenty20 again they would probably need judgement, luck and Kevin Pietersen. Since one of those components will not be there – and may never be there again – the others will have to be in bountiful supply if they are to have a prayer of retaining the title they won in such style two years ago.
What keeps the flame of hope burning is that triumph in the Caribbean, England's first (and still only) in one of the major limited-overs knockouts. They went as undercooked as a barbecue sausage, with uncapped opening batsmen, a strategy based on a policy of "what the hell, we've nothing to lose", and utterly confounded expectations, not least in their own dressing room.
By the end England were flying. Pietersen, having damned the format three years earlier in the inaugural competition when he talked of "silly shots for a silly game" in the days before the Indian Premier League proffered riches, was man of the tournament.
His spectacular squabble with the England management means he will not be present at the fourth version of the competition, which officially starts tomorrow, and whatever the team say they would be better with him. But this does not mean England can quite be written off. They remain, lest it be forgotten, the world's top-ranked T20 side, a status earned not only because they are reigning champions but because since becoming so they have won 10 of their 15 completed matches and never lost a series. That this is scant evidence over 30 months is hardly their fault but that of schedulers.
Preposterous though it might be to suggest it in an overcrowded cricketing calendar, there is too little international Twenty20. Stuart Broad, England's captain, for instance, has played more games in three World Twenty20 tournaments than outside them.
If England can win it, they are also capable of losing to Afghanistan in their opening Group A match on Friday. At least six other teams of the 12 in the competition are eminently capable of becoming champions on 8 October when the final is played in Colombo.
These are the joys of the format: it is possible for just about any team to win a one-off match but you need a little more to assemble a sequence of victories, which is why some of the dozen can be ruled out. The three previous winners have been India, Pakistan and England, none of whom started with a persuasive case.
India were reluctant participants in 2007, there only because it was in the ICC regulations. After winning it in a tense final against Pakistan, the country went Twenty20 crazy and things were never the same again. The IPL was born, vast riches followed.
There will be the usual expectation on India this time, though their form in almost all cricket since they won the 50-over World Cup at home last year has been fitful. They are in England's group – two from each of four qualify for the Super Eights – and it may be an advantage to them, as to other sides, that they have IPL experience.
England have little or none but their domestic T20, the first if not the richest, has been around so long that the format is now second nature to the players. Players like Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler did not have to learn to adapt their games to T20; it has been around as long as their careers, it is a natural part of them.
Pakistan, the other World Twenty20 champions, are just as likely to perform commandingly or inadequately. It is simply in their cricketing DNA. Though they have some bobby-dazzlers in their squad, they look a bit thin in the field to sustain a challenge to the end. But if Pakistan can overcome a general shortage of athleticism, anybody can.
On the evidence of the brief past, a new winner is likely to emerge. Considering the hegemony Australia enjoyed for most of the opening decade of the century it is a surprise that they still do not have a World Twenty20 championship on their CV. Under George Bailey, the thoughtful Tasmanian from Ricky Ponting country in Launceston, they have forged a new team quickly.
Everybody's favoured second team will be West Indies. They are an engaging, maddening bunch who can smack the ball miles and are capable of hammering any opponents. Equally, they are capable of rolling over in a heap. If Chris Gayle can marshal his resources for a fortnight, well, they really can be the winners – and it may be a victory that would mean more to the Caribbean than 15 years of Test domination did in the 1970s and 1980s. That may be heretical but it is the way it is.
This tournament has to hit the ground running to have a chance. The players need to grasp the idea quickly that Twenty20 is meant to move along rapidly.
When it first began in England nine years ago new batsmen used virtually to run to the middle and fielders would sprint between overs. Now proceedings are conducted at the pace of a funeral cortège and the shortest format has lost something as a result. It needs to be frenetic to have a reason for existing.
Spin will play a significant part, something that might not have been expected when the format was invented. Of the world's top 10 T20 bowlers, seven are spinners. Some, like Nathan McCullum of New Zealand, are regular openers.
English fans, especially, are coming off the end of a long season, but no country is exactly short of cricket. If anybody can win, nobody has all the bases covered. It would be no surprise at all to see a well-drilled, disciplined, fit team with just enough maverick spirit lift the trophy and, after watching them closely for three months, it could be time for South Africa.
Knockout stages: when and where
* Super Eights
Winner of group C v runner-up of group D (Pallekele, 11am)
Winner of group A v runner-up of group B (Pallekele, 3pm)
Winner of group A v runner-up of group D (Pallekelle, 11am)
Winner of group C v runner-up of group B (Pallekelle, 3pm)
Runner-up of group B v runner-up of group D (Pallekele, 11am)
Winner of group A v winner of group C (Pallekele, 3pm)
Winner of group D v runner-up of group C (Colombo, 11am)
Winner of group B v runner-up of group A (Colombo, 3pm)
Winner of group B v runner-up of group C (Colombo, 11am)
Winner of group D v runner-up of group A (Colombo, 3pm)
Winner of group B v winner of group D (Colombo, 11am)
Runner-up of group A v runner-up of group C (Colombo, 3pm)
Winner of Super Eights group 1 v runner-up of Super Eights group 2 (Colombo, 2.30pm)
Winner of Super Eights group 2 v runner-up of Super Eights group 1 (Colombo, 2.30pm)
Live coverage of every match throughout the tournament will be available on Sky Sports 1/2/3
Who's in the best shape? Group-by-group guide
* GROUP A
The minnows have come a long way since being granted ICC membership in 2001 and earned the right to compete in their first major tournament after finishing as runners-up to Ireland in qualifying. They are unlikely to progress beyond the group stage after being drawn against two previous winners – England and India – but a lack of expectation reduces the pressure on them. Odds 1,000-1
Much of the build-up to the defence of their crown will centre on the omission of Kevin Pietersen, who was named player of the tournament when they claimed their first ICC trophy and has scored over 500 runs more than any other England batsman in the Twenty20 format. Captain Stuart Broad can approach this tournament with confidence as England have had a decent record since their triumph in the West Indies two years ago. Odds 7-1
The champions of the inaugural 2007 tournament have a natural advantage owing to their familiarity with subcontinental conditions, while the expected return of the big-hitting all-rounder Yuvraj Singh will be a bonus. But they are hardly striking fear into their opponents, losing to England – whom they will face in Group A, along with Afghanistan – both home and away last year. Odds 4-1
Fixtures (all times BST)
Wed Afghanistan v India (Colombo, 3pm)
Fri Afghanistan v England (Colombo, 3pm)
Sun England v India (Colombo, 3pm)
* GROUP B
Although the Aussies finished runners-up to England in 2010 in the Caribbean, they have not won a series in the shortest form since then in eight attempts, are led by George Bailey, who has just a handful of T20 caps to his name, and recently suffered the ignominy of falling below Ireland in the ICC world rankings. Odds 6-1
Ireland have shown in the past that they are more than capable of upsetting the odds, so their more illustrious Group B opponents should not be complacent. They won the ICC World Twenty20 qualifier to earn their place in Sri Lanka and have chosen an experienced 15-man squad that boasts plenty of faces familiar from the County Championship. Odds 200-1
If West Indies are to enjoy a successful tournament, they will surely need the destructive Chris Gayle to come to the fore. His return to the international fold after 18 months following a dispute with the West Indies Cricket Board has galvanised the team in all formats. They are not a one-man side, however, with Kieron Pollard also capable of changing the course of an innings. Odds 13-2
Wed Australia v Ireland (Colombo, 11am)
Sat Australia v West Indies (Colombo, 3pm)
24 Sept Ireland v W Indies (Colombo, 3pm)
* GROUP C
The perennial underachievers have yet to shake off their "chokers" tag in the big tournaments but they are currently second in the Twenty20 world rankings, having lost just four of their last 15 matches. Perhaps the only thing missing from their armoury is a world-class spinner, which could prove pivotal on the sub-continent. Odds 5-1
Playing in front of their own supporters will make Sri Lanka one of the favourites for the competition, according to Kumar Sangakkara. "Home advantage is... about playing in your country, playing in front of the people who cheer and love you," the veteran batsman said. They have every reason to be confident, after finishing runners-up in 2009 and reaching the semi-finals the following year. Odds 5-1
The fact that Zimbabwe have not won a Twenty20 game in 10 attempts – losing 2-0 to India, South Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand (twice) – in a run stretching back to the 2010 World Twenty20, have not progressed beyond the group stages of the competition and will face the hosts Sri Lanka and South Africa in Group C this time around means they are widely expected to suffer another early exit. Odds 150-1
Tues Sri Lanka v Zimbabwe (Hambantota, 3pm)
Thurs S Africa v Zimbabwe (Hambantota, 3pm)
Sat Sri Lanka v S Africa (Hambantota, 11am)
* GROUP D
The Tigers are seen as the whipping boys of Test cricket and do not fare much better in either of the shorter formats. They were eliminated in the group stages in both of the previous two World Twenty20 tournaments and are odds-on for the hat-trick, having been drawn to face New Zealand and 2009 winners Pakistan. Odds 66-1
Seen as overachievers in the World Cup, having reached the semi-finals on the last two occasions, the Black Caps have been decidedly mediocre in the World Twenty20, with just one last-four appearance, in 2007. New Zealand have several big hitters in their ranks – Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum and Jacob Oram, to name but three – but their current travails with spin on the tour of India are a foreboding sign. Odds 16-1
Mohammad Hafeez's men have played more Twenty20 matches than any other nation, although they have a decidedly patchy record, with victories over Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as well as defeats to South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies and England. Yet Pakistan have an enviable record in the World Twenty20: runners-up in 2007, champions two years later and semi-finalists in the West Indies in 2010. All-rounder Shahid Afridi (left) will be expected to take centre stage once again. Odds 13-2
Fri Bangladesh v N Zealand (Pallekele, 11am)
Sun New Zealand v Pakistan (Pallekele, 11am)
25 Sept Bangladesh v Pakistan (Pallekele, 3pm)
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