Writing in the 2008 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, Hugh Chevallier, now co-editor of the famous sports publication, described the inaugural 2007 ICC Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa as a “dream”. It was held just months after the 50-over World Cup in the West Indies, and he viewed these as a classic case of tournaments with contrasting fortunes.
While some matches in the 50-over World Cup in the Caribbean saw empty stands, off-field controversies and a final marred by inclement weather and bad light, Chevallier described the effort in South Africa as “lean, joyful, laid-back”, a tournament that ended in style, with India defeating Pakistan in the final at Johannesburg.
For Indians, that 2007 Twenty20 World Cup still feels fresh. They have vivid memories of Yuvraj Singh dispatching Stuart Broad for six 6s in an over in Kingsmead, Durban; Ravi Shastri and David Lloyd had a field day in the commentator’s box that evening. Robin Uthappa took a bow, and tipped his hat, after hitting the stumps in that bowl-out against Pakistan. Spectators enjoyed professional DJs, cheerleaders, music and even fireworks at the venues. With four balls to go in the last over of the final, just six runs away from glory, Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq attempted to scoop Joginder Sharma over fine leg. He failed and the ball landed in S. Sreesanth’s hands. India had won.
It was unlike any other tournament seen before. Six months later, the franchise-based Indian Premier League (IPL) made its debut—its latest edition has, in fact, just concluded in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
So what can be expected of the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup as it returns this Sunday after a five-year gap, in the midst of a pandemic? The West Indies bagged the last edition, held in 2016 in India, as Carlos Brathwaite hit four consecutive sixes in the last over of the final. Tournaments since have been shelved due to a cramped international cricketing calendar and the pandemic but India is now hosting the 2021 edition from 17 October-14 November—in the UAE and Oman. Sixteen teams will compete for the trophy across four venues.
A lot has changed since 2016. Bangladesh and Afghanistan now rank higher than Sri Lanka and the West Indies in the ICC World T20I rankings, while Papua New Guinea, who lost their ICC T20I status in 2018, have qualified for the 2021 tournament. England, who top the T20I rankings, are now the team to beat.
Lounge looks at what makes the 2021 edition intriguing. Can the India-Pakistan rivalry live up to expectations? How will covid-19 impact the game. Will team Bangladesh continue its imperious form? Who will win it now?
India and Pakistan will fight it out on 24 October: For Indians, all attention will be focused on this standout early fixture in the Super 12 stages, another chapter in the fabled rivalry between the two countries. India’s 2007 winning campaign started and ended against Pakistan. Two years later, Pakistan lifted the trophy in England. The last time these two teams met in a T20 World Cup in 2016, India recorded a comfortable six-wicket victory at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
Between 2007-16, India and Pakistan have played eight T20I matches, with India winning six and losing one. The eighth was a tie-breaker. Given that India-Pakistan matches are now few and far between, the 24 October fixture becomes even more special. “Come 24 October, both nations are going to be at a standstill,” says sports presenter and commentator Suhail Chandhok. “The rivalry is just as fierce. When you say absence makes the heart grow fonder, in this case the absence makes the rivalry grow fonder. Since 2009, neither side has won this tournament and that’s why there’s so much hunger in both these teams.”
There are plenty of battles to watch out for. The biggest, says Chandhok, will be the battle of the two captains, Virat Kohli and Babar Azam. No one has scored more runs in T20Is between India and Pakistan from 2012-16 than Kohli (254 runs in six innings, with an average of 84.66). “Babar is quickly moving along to being touted as one of the best batsmen in the world in this format,” says Chandhok. “There are some other great battles. On one side, you have Kohli, Rohit Sharma and K.L. Rahul. On the other, you have Mohammad Rizwan and (all-rounder Mohammad) Hafeez, who has added so much depth (to the Pakistan team) over the years,” says Chandhok. “When you see the array of talent on display, India versus Pakistan is not just about the rivalry between the two nations. I think this match will live up to expectations.”
Sanjog Gupta, head of sports at Star and Disney India, says the fixture has generated unparalleled anticipation. “Core and casual fans aside, we expect even non-viewers of cricket to buy into the hype and log in for the event. This has all the makings of becoming one of the most watched cricket matches.”
If you needed proof, here it is: Tickets for this match at the Dubai International Stadium sold out within minutes earlier this month.
Virat Kohli's chance for T20 success: If the IPL was a chance to build a head of steam before the World Cup, Virat Kohli’s last act as captain of Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) certainly didn’t do him any favours. Earlier this week, RCB failed to beat Kolkata Knight Riders in a bid to reach the IPL final. That means Kohli departs as RCB’s captain without lifting the IPL trophy, having taken over the side in 2013.
The 32-year-old will also step down from India’s T20 captaincy after the World Cup—a role he took over from M.S. Dhoni four years ago. Could the move help Kohli focus on his batting, particularly in Tests? According to Espncricinfo, Kohli has averaged 26.80 over 12 Test matches since the start of 2020, and has gone 53 innings without an international hundred across all formats.
Australian cricket writer and analyst Jarrod Kimber feels Kohli’s decision to step down as captain will have no effect on India’s performance. “They are a professional cricket outfit. They are either a good enough team to win or they are not. I can’t see how it would have any effect anywhere except for the way people commentate and write about it or speak about it on social media.”
While the idea of split-captaincy is still up for debate, the indications are that Rohit Sharma may be named captain for T20 matches. In his stint as captain of Mumbai Indians, Sharma has guided the team to five IPL titles. “It’s completely different,” says Kimber, over a video call from London.
“The way you set up an international team is not in any way similar to a franchise team. You have to understand that the RCB franchise has been dysfunctional from the start…. Rohit Sharma is from a better franchise, with a better team. I would say the captaincy on the field probably plays a three- to four-run differential. Rohit could come in with newer ideas and planning that can help them. But a change of coach could do that or a change of mindset could do that.”
Squad-wise, the Indian team’s selection for the T20 World Cup has surprised some. Dhoni will join the team as a mentor. Batter Shikhar Dhawan and leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal have been left out. Ishan Kishan, Suryakumar Yadav and Shardul Thakur will be taking part in their first World Cup, along with spin bowlers Varun Chakravarthy and Rahul Chahar. Ravichandran Ashwin returns to India’s T20 squad after four years. Bowling all-rounder Axar Patel is among the stand-by players; the list includes batter Shreyas Iyer and bowler Deepak Chahar.
Former Indian spinner Maninder Singh questions the team composition and balance. “I would have ideally liked to have an extra batsman in there—maybe a Shikhar Dhawan. You also have to think that Hardik Pandya is going in just as a batsman who is out of form. He fits in well (into the team) only if he bowls,” says Singh, who played 59 ODIs (One Day Internationals) and 35 Tests for India.
Destination UAE: In recent years, the UAE has become cricket’s de facto go-to destination for major tournaments, especially in the shorter format. But the UAE and Oman will be handling a global ICC event for the first time. This is also the first instance where a major cricket World Cup will be held outside the elite Test-playing nations.
The Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi and the Dubai International Stadium hold the record for hosting the most men’s T20 internationals. Sharjah, which was first used for international cricket in 1984, is one of the other venues for this World Cup. Apart from some group stage matches in Muscat, most of the fixtures will be spread across these three venues.
The pitch, and the wear-and-tear during the just concluded IPL, will be crucial. The wickets were noticeably slow in the IPL. “They are slightly different from the Indian pitches. As a general rule, spinners seem to do better in the UAE. It’s also a pretty good place for pace bowling,” says Kimber.
He adds: “We have just had the entire IPL. Now we will have the World Cup. What’s going to happen to the pitches? That’s the bigger factor. While the ground staff in that area is used to hosting too much cricket, I would expect the pitches to be a little bit ragged by the end of the tournament. We could get very slow surfaces, which might not be the most attractive T20 cricket.”
The impact of covid-19: This is easily the biggest international cricket tournament in the pandemic era. Since the onset of covid-19, fans have been kept away from matches. Teams have had to follow strict quarantine and bio-bubble protocols, both in international and domestic competitions.
Spectators are now trickling back into stadiums. Tickets for the World Cup went on sale this month and according to the ICC, all venues in the UAE will operate at approximately 70% of maximum seated capacity. Abu Dhabi has introduced new socially distanced “pods” of a maximum of four spectators on their east and west grass mounds. The Oman Cricket Academy, one of the venues, has put temporary infrastructure in place to accommodate 3,000 fans.
“There won’t be many crowds for a World Cup,” says Kimber. “That’s the first big difference. Especially for teams who have very good travelling supporter bases. There is no home team.”
He, for one, isn’t too convinced about the timing. Bio-bubbles and safety protocols are a whole different ball game in a World Cup, he says. “Realistically, we shouldn’t be having an international sporting event at the moment, the same way we shouldn’t have had the Olympics. It’s not a safe or smart option. I have got no problems with domestic leagues going ahead,” he adds.
“But,” he notes, “there’s too much money involved for these things to not go ahead.” And it is going ahead. Many international players who were part of the IPL will rejoin their national teams later than other colleagues. For certain players and teams, especially the likes of India and England, the World Cup will be the culmination of a long period of back-to-back matches, Test series and tournaments. “Teams probably haven’t prepared the exact way that they would want to,” says Kimber. “A lot of the teams have quite rightly had to use the IPL as a warm-up, which doesn’t always work. For instance, Australia are probably going to use Steve Smith (of the Delhi Capitals) to bat at No.4. But if he’s asked to open (the batting), he hasn’t been in all the games (for the Capitals). David Warner has been dropped (by Sunrisers Hyderabad). It’s quite clear that it’s not the ideal preparation or situation for a World Cup. We could have a random winner this time.”
Minnows, upsets and the dark horse: The T20 World Cup has always had room for upsets and surprise packages. Zimbabwe shocked Australia in the 2007 tournament. The Netherlands defeated England on their home turf at Lord’s in the opening match of the 2009 edition, while Hong Kong rallied to a surprise win over Bangladesh in 2014. Apart from the big hitters, the 2021 tournament will see Namibia, Scotland, Ireland, Oman and Papua New Guinea fight it out in the group stages to reach the Super 12. Papua New Guinea, who qualified for their first senior cricket World Cup just two years ago, will be led by Assad Vala, who is equally adept with the bat and off-spin bowling.
2016’s top scorer was Bangladesh’s Tamim Iqbal and while he won’t be part of the squad, this is a Bangladesh team at the top of its game. It enters the T20 World Cup on the back of two historic T20 series wins over Australia and New Zealand at home. Bangladesh have never made it to the knockout stages of a T20 World Cup. Could this possibly be their year? “Bangladesh have been in incredible form. They haven’t lost a series in a really long time. They beat Australia and New Zealand in Dhaka. These are not small teams,” says Chandhok. “The UAE has similar conditions. It could be a good tournament for them, given where they are playing and the depth of their squad. You do have to remember that they come through the qualifying stage. They will have to get the better of Scotland, Oman and Papua New Guinea. I think it should be a breeze and these matches should get the team back in rhythm.”
No T20 dialogue today is complete without a mention of Afghanistan. Veteran all-rounder Mohammad Nabi (12 wickets) and Rashid Khan (11 wickets) were the standout bowlers in the 2016 tournament. In December 2020, Khan was also named the ICC Men’s T20I player of the decade. These two will again be the key players for the Afghanistan team, which made its debut at a major ICC event 11 years ago, at the 2010 T20 World Cup. Their journey from a war-torn country to a Test-playing nation has been nothing short of astounding. “It’s probably one of the greatest stories that has happened in sport. The fact that it has happened in cricket is remarkable. It’s a blessing for the sport,” says Kimber. “In Afghanistan’s case, you have people who learnt to play cricket at refugee camps in other countries. They walked back home and brought something with them that enhanced their lives. Unfortunately, because of the Taliban and everything they represent, especially the way they are seen in the West, there might be problems going forward.”