There was a time when the sub-continent was mystery,assigned darker and more exotic shades than even we were aware of. It was the land of the unknown,rendered even more so by inventive prose. You got the feeling that visiting teams were waiting for the unexpected,peculiarly they expected it,and almost ready to succumb to it. Either they werent aware of how to combat the conditions or,more likely,were just unwilling to. A cricket tour in our part of the world brought out the best in the cricket writers,rarely in the cricketers.
A couple of days ago I saw two giant New Zealanders,they of the land that had seemed beyond the unknown to us,understand the sub-continent like it were their own. And it suddenly struck me that the mystique had gone. Jacob Oram and James Franklin seemed so at ease that they might have been bowling at Eden Park,indeed that Eden Park might seem as familiar as the Feroz Shah Kotla! The world had shrunk and India was now the playground of the cricket world. Two New Zealanders had beaten India playing an Indian game!
And so,as the World T20 begins across the Palk Strait,I wonder if knowledge of local conditions is a qualification anymore; whether slow bowlers who take the pace off the ball speak only in our accents. Wristy players with exotic shots now hail from Ireland,mystery spinners from Trinidad and even those from Dunedin and Hobart are increasingly at home in Pallekele and Visakhapatnam.
And so this is as open a World T20 as any you will see. You could argue,and you will argue fairly,that the smaller a match the more open it is anyway but in earlier editions the format was still unfamiliar and there were times when the slow,low pitches of the sub-continent could negate teams like New Zealand,South Africa and England. Not so anymore. The IPL is now five years old,the Big Bash has gathered steam,there is excitement around Englands T20 and little leagues have sprung up in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. As cuisines grow global so does shortform cricket.
To be honest,the groups dont matter anymore and the rankings still have insufficient data to make for fair and informed assessments. As Australia have shown the number ten can be made to look correct and ridiculous in the space of two days!
Look at their matches against Pakistan. In the 2010 event they got 80 in 6 overs,then struggled to make that much in 20 overs recently and a couple of days later bowled out Pakistan for 79. Any one of those days could have been a final so predictions will be foolhardy.
That is especially so because the news coming out of Sri Lanka is that the pitches have a bit of the spice normally associated with fish curries; that the ball is allowed a decent carry at Pallekele and that spinners of doubtful pedigree will have to do more than just turn a door knob to get help from the pitches.
I hope that assessment is right,for good pitches will favour better cricketers,just as I hope that boundary ropes are placed a respectable distance away from the batsman.
The unpredictability makes this edition even more alluring. The West Indies,once the home of fast bowling,could play with Badree,Narine,Samuels and Sammy (three of them slow,one just going past that definition),Sri Lanka could throw up another couple of unorthodox sensations to go with Malinga and Mendis (have been told to keep an eye out for Munaweera and Dananjaya) and even South Africa,the land of the braai and seam-up bowlers might play three slow bowlers. And with Sohail Tanvir and Umar Gul in form,Pakistan is the one country that need not bother about the surface,having bowlers to suit all kinds.
India lack death bowler
If the tracks are indeed really good,India will be forced to play with five,which is how it should be anyway. A team that has six quality batsmen and can play Pathan,Ashwin and Harbhajan thereafter shouldnt need the security of another batsman at number seven. If there is a weakness in this team it is the absence of a death bowler and the selection of Zaheer Khan,never the most enthusiastic T20 cricketer,is probably an attempt to fill that position.
But for the first time in years the team to watch out for is the West Indies. I had suggested a couple of years ago that T20 might be the path to the revival of West Indies cricket and they certainly seem to play it with the joie-de-vivre that the format encourages. A team of Chris Gayle,Dwayne Smith,Darren Bravo (or Lendl Simmons),Marlon Samuels,Dwayne Bravo,Kieron Pollard,Denesh Ramdin,Darren Sammy,Andre Russell,Sunil Narine and Fidel Edwards (with Ravi Rampaul and Samuel Badree around) plays at the senses.
Gayle will still be the talisman,the enforcer but there are many matchwinners down the line. And almost all of them have played substantially on the sub-continent.
To me,this World T20 will be a search for the joy in West Indies cricket. Anyone can win it but the West Indies will bring more smiles to faces.