IT is no more a sideshow

Chris Gayle, Darren Sammy and Andre Russell celebrate after West Indies beat Sri Lanka to win the ICC Twenty20 World Cup in Colombo in 2012.-AP

Up until last year, the World Twenty20 was contested by 12 sides, including associate nations. This time, two of eight teams — six associates, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe — will advance from the first phase and join the top eight full member sides. While the tournament as a whole is eight matches longer, the number of insignificant games will fall, with more associates involved. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

When the ICC World Twenty20 chugs into view later this month, it will do so not as a visitor curious and alien, but instead a houseguest warm and familiar. Teams have been preparing for its arrival as a matter of routine and there will be none of the curiosity or awe that greeted the first edition. “This was a tournament brimming with joie de vivre,” Wisden gushed, in almost star-struck manner, in its review in 2007. “Intense, in-your-face, incessant. Most days saw two games, some three; planned as a tournament at speed, sometimes it felt more like a tournament on speed, punctuated by blasts of music and countless dance-sets.”

Twenty-over cricket has now established itself to such a degree that the bells and whistles surrounding the game hardly attract attention. But the World Twenty20 is a serious pursuit, a prize worth fighting for. From the turn of the year to the start of the competition in Bangladesh on March 16, West Indies will have played seven T20 internationals, England and Australia six, and South Africa three. These results are taken seriously, the games no more seen as sideshows tacked on to the end of a long tour.

It is something of a specialized pursuit too, nations having assembled squads with great care. Else, there would be no place for Brad Hogg, a 43-year-old who had once retired in 2008; Brad Hodge, a 39-year-old mostly remembered for all the games he could not play than the ones he did; or Albie Morkel, a big-hitting bits and pieces cricketer who believed his international career was over.

If there were any doubts over its value to participating teams, the joy on West Indian faces and the grief on Sri Lankan ones in Colombo two years ago should dispel them once and for all. Mahela Jayawardene, who stepped down as T20 captain in the immediate aftermath and as leader from all forms subsequently, looked crestfallen while the West Indians began their party on the field and likely carried on into the morning elsewhere.

“This is for the Caribbean people,” their captain Darren Sammy said later. “I know they’re partying from Jamaica down to Guyana. And we know how to party. I think they’ll need a lot of bartenders.”

Shahid Afridi congratulates Angelo Mathews after Sri Lanka beat Pakistan in the Asia Cup final. Will Lanka make it a grand double in Bangladesh?-AP

That win, many, like Clive Lloyd, had hoped, would spark a revival of West Indian cricket. But it did nothing of the sort. West Indies sleepwalked through Test series in India and New Zealand. Even in T20 matches, there was no joy, with two losses to the Kiwis followed by a drawn series at home to Ireland. Nonetheless, the champion could be expected to mount a strong defence of its title, packed as the squad is with match-winners. Chris Gayle, Sunil Narine, Dwayne Bravo and Marlon Samuels, who played one of the great big-game innings across formats in that final in Colombo, will all be on hand. The absence of the all-rounder Kieron Pollard, though, is a serious blow. His bowling, acrobatic fielding, and outrageous hitting will all be missed.

Grouped alongside West Indies are Australia, Pakistan and India. The last of these sides goes into the World Twenty20 on the back of what can politely be described as a troubled phase. Test and ODI series defeats to South Africa and New Zealand and an early exit from the Asia Cup have heightened concerns over the team’s form. But a new competition should reinvigorate the troops. M.S. Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh, who were not at the Asia Cup for different reasons, will feature at the World Twenty20 — and prominently, supporters will hope. Victory in the inaugural edition in South Africa set off a frenzy for the short version that players have since commercially benefited from no end. Success here will make India concurrent champion in both limited-overs formats; with the ICC Champions Trophy also in the cabinet, it will firm up Dhoni's place — for all the flak he has copped — in the pantheon of India’s great captains.

The neighbour Pakistan delivered a fine show in the Asia Cup that bodes well. Despite all the muck cricket in the nation has been dragged through, Pakistan remains one of the most engaging, magnetic sides in world cricket.

Australia, under George Bailey, has a number of powerful strikers of the ball, seam-bowling all-rounders, and quicks like Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc. But Australia suffered last time around in Sri Lanka without effective spinners or batsmen who could play spin well. There is nothing to suggest things will be different in Bangladesh. The battle to advance from Group 2 will be engrossing.

Over in Group 1, Sri Lanka, after repeated disappointments, will be a real threat again, given its strength in the conditions. The personnel remain largely unchanged from those that made the final last time. England, champion in 2010, could struggle, despite the number of apparent specialists it boasts. South Africa and New Zealand have a number of strong players in the format. It would be bracing if either team, starved of any global success save one ICC Champions Trophy win each, went all the way.

Up until last year, the World Twenty20 was contested by 12 sides, including associate nations. This time, two of eight teams — six associates, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe — will advance from the first phase and join the top eight full member sides. While the tournament as a whole is eight matches longer, the number of insignificant games will fall, with more associates involved.

“The ICC discouraged comparison with the 50-over World Cup, but that stopped no one,” Wisden noted after the first World Twenty20. “Where that had been bloated, joyless, officious and ended in farce, this was lean, joyful, laid-back and ended in style.” Another generous helping of the same is en route.