Hambantota. Hosts Sri Lanka will hope to make a brisk start to the World Twenty20 Tuesday as they open the country’s biggest ever sports event with high hopes of claiming a second global title.
In Hambantota, the home town of President Mahinda Rajapakse, Sri Lanka should encounter few problems against minnows Zimbabwe as they raise the curtain on Twenty20 cricket’s three-week, 12-nation, world championship.
Sri Lanka have yet to emulate their 50-over World Cup victory in 1996, despite reaching the final in 2007 and again last year. They were World Twenty20 runners-up in 2009 and went out in the semi-finals in 2010.
The tropical “Teardrop Island,” torn by a 37-year ethnic conflict until hostilities were declared over in 2009, has never held a tournament on this scale, although it was a co-host of the 1996 and 2011 World Cups.
Despite a fast and furious format which makes predictions unwise, Mahela Jayawardene’s team start as slight tournament favorites because of home advantage and because they are known as a team for the big occasion.
“We are one of the favorites but we are part of the pack that, you know, if we get into a good momentum we could go all the way,” Jayawardene said.
“Sri Lanka is a cricket-crazy country and the expectations would be high. People would back us so we need to enjoy that,” he added.
Along with newly crowned cricketer of the year Kumar Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan will do damage with the bat, while Sri Lanka can also call on talented all-rounders Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera.
Fast bowler Lasith Malinga and unorthodox spinner Ajantha Mendis complete a formidable line-up which will also be familiar with the varied conditions in the capital Colombo, steamy hill town Pallekele and coastal Hambantota.
“Be ready for a stiff breeze in Hambantota, swing and seam in Pallekele and a good batting surface at the Premadasa [stadium] in Colombo,” batsman-wicketkeeper Sangakkara said.
“Each venue will have a different challenge and sides will have to adjust accordingly. It will make the tournament more exciting.”
In an open field, at least half of the teams will consider themselves strong contenders to lift the trophy in Colombo on October 7 — and the others will be encouraged by the tournament’s reputation for surprises.
India, initially reluctant to embrace cricket’s newest format, won the inaugural event in South Africa in 2007 under rookie skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, after senior pros Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly opted out.
It was in the same tournament that Zimbabwe stunned Australia and Bangladesh upset the West Indies. India brushed aside England, South Africa, Australia and defeated Pakistan in successive games to grab the title.
Pakistan won the second edition in England in 2009, a tournament that made a stunning start when the Netherlands, a non Test-playing nation, upset the hosts by four wickets in front of a packed house at Lord’s.
England won the 2010 event in the Caribbean against Australia, who had pulled off an amazing escape in their semi-final against Pakistan when Michael Hussey smashed 38 off 10 balls to win the match with one delivery to spare.
“It’s the sort of format where nothing can be taken for granted,” said India’s Dhoni. “We have seen one ball change the whole game.”
The 12 sides have been divided into four pools for the preliminary league, with the top two from each group advancing to the Super Eights round.
If the seedings go to plan, fans can expect high-voltage action in the Super Eights, a week-long race to the one-off semis and final.
England, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and New Zealand are seeded to meet in group one of the Super Eights, with the top two teams making it to the semi-finals.
Group two is already being billed as the “Group of Death”, with arch-rivals India and Pakistan seeded to face Australia and South Africa, should all go through to the Super Eights.
England are out to prove they can defend the title without star batsman Kevin Pietersen, the man of the tournament in 2010 who has been axed from the national team on disciplinary grounds.
The West Indies are also touted as potential champions, with explosive batsmen in Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard and Marlon Samuels, and a wily spinner in Sunil Narine.