World Twenty20: Part sport, part showbiz, so let's have a ball
The World Twenty20, which starts on Friday, will be the most successful global cricket event ever held in England. Since, of recent vintage, it is competing against the World Cup of 1999 and the 2004 Champions Trophy, that might not be saying much. Both were damp squibs and in the latter case a damp squib that failed to ignite in the dark of early autumn.
Of course, it is saying a great deal if the inaugural World Cup of 1975, which ended in a truly grand final at Lord's on a hot summer's day, is considered. But that was another, more innocent age. Cricket tournaments did not need hoopla then, they merely needed decent cricket and the event of 34 years ago, novel, small and perfectly formed, finally got it.
There is genuine reason to believe that this time the organisers will get it right and that they will produce a competition which is engaging, entertaining and of its era: part sport, part showbiz. The England and Wales Cricket Board, who have not always covered themselves in glory running these things (who can forget the 1999 World Cup theme song which not only had no mention of cricket but was released after the host nation had been eliminated?), have taken no risks.
Instead of muddling through, they hired Steve Elworthy as tournament director, after his success in a similar role at the World Twenty20 in South Africa two years ago. He intends to get things right from the start. There is no opening ceremony of the shabby kind which got the event a decade ago off to a laughable start from which it never recovered. There will be an opening presentation, short, sharp, spectacular in a low-key fashion.
Elworthy cannot guarantee two things which would help in making this World Twenty20 successful: the weather and a decent run by the host nation. With the usual caveats, it seems the first of those wishes will be met and that the sun will indeed shine. The second is much trickier, although at least England have two chances. For the first time in any major team sport, a men's championship is being run alongside that for women.
While England's men have been undergoing their usual rollercoaster ride and have been careering towards the ground in Twenty20, the women's team have taken all before them. As world champions in the 50-over format, they have a copper-bottomed chance of further triumph. If England perform as well as expected, they will make a breakthrough into the public consciousness never seen before.
Most of the burden of hope, if not expectation, will be on the side led by Paul Collingwood. It is possible only to be cautiously optimistic since England's selectors, feeling they were in a corner, picked an experimental team. Five of the squad's 15 men have never played a Twenty20 international and two have never played an international of any sort. It is a gamble to thrust them into a global championship.
The new men are there because they are "Twenty20 specialists". A similar policy was pursued in South Africa two years ago when four players were chosen because of their previous form in the domestic Twenty20 game and England won only one of their five matches.
Andy Flower, England's coach, rightly bridled the other day when it was put to him by a recalcitrant reporter (this one) that England were hopeless at Twenty20. Since the last world championship, England have actually easily won three of their four official T20 internationals. But in March in Trinidad they were overwhelmed by West Indies in an appalling display. That had been preceded by an equally lacklustre effort in the ill-fated Stanford Super Series when they were playing for $1m a man and looked as though they were playing for sixpence.
The tournament is being played on three grounds – Lord's, The Oval and Trent Bridge – and will have one other disadvantage it could have done without. It is being conducted against the backdrop of the Ashes, which begin early in July and which everybody is talking about.
It is heartening that the oldest series in the world has not been subsumed by a brash new format. So Test cricket can afford to be gracious. The next three weeks or so is Twenty20's time. The grounds will be full, the fun contagious. India to retain their title.
Why england can win it...
1. They have a fresh team of proven Twenty20 performers not encumbered by recent failures.
2. Captain Paul Collingwood will be the wiser for having done the job in the previous World Twenty20 and claims to have learned enough to run a Twenty20 degree course after being at the Indian Premier League for three weeks.
3. The wicketkeeper, James Foster, is that rare modern sight, a wicketkeeper who electrifies his team-mates by the wizardry and earnestness of his own performances.
4. Their coach, Andy Flower, is the only coach in the tournament to have played Twenty20 cricket so understands its peculiar rhythms.
Who's in it:
Group A India, Bangladesh, Ireland
Group B Pakistan, England, Holland
Group C Australia, Sri Lanka, West Indies
Group D New Zealand, South Africa, Scotland
Warm-ups: Tuesday: England v Scotland, Trent Bridge (5.30pm)
Wednesday: England v West Indies, Lord's (5.30pm)
Friday: England v Holland, Lord's (5.30pm)
Sunday 7 June: England v Pakistan, The Oval (5.30pm)
* top two in each group then progress to Super Eights
Super Eights: 11-16 June
Semi-finals: Thursday 18 June: First semi, Trent Bridge (5.30pm)
Friday 19 June: Second semi, The Oval (5.30pm)
Sunday 21 June: Final, Lord's (3pm)
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