THE qualifying round might have already started but the first major cricket tournament since the pandemic struck begins in earnest this weekend with the Super-12 round of the Twenty20 World Cup.
Pushed back a year due to Covid-19 and being held in the Middle East instead of India as originally planned, the tournament will be the first of two World Cups of the shortest format of the game in two years. It effectively means that the champions of this edition will have the shortest reign — just a year before they begin their title defence in Australia, which was due to host the 2020 edition. Compare that to defending champions West Indies who won in 2016. They will meet England in their opener on Saturday. But arguably the biggest game of the Super-12 will come a day later when arch-rivals Pakistan and India clash in Dubai.
Pakistan’s preparations for the World Cup were hit by both New Zealand and England cancelling their tours to the country. But despite a bumpy ride including several changes made to the original World Cup squad, there are signs that the team is rising to the occasion.
A thumping win in a warm-up against a similarly mercurial West Indies signals hope for the match against India. Indian captain Virat Kohli has tried his best to downplay the significance of the game. But there is a lot riding on it especially given the political tensions between Pakistan and India. In fact, several Indian ministers have called for the match to be cancelled.
India-Pakistan matches have been restricted to international tournaments with the two countries not having played a bilateral series since 2013. The last two games were evenly divided with Pakistan winning the Champions Trophy final in 2017 and India later maintaining their record of not losing to their rivals in a World Cup match in 2019.
The hype surrounding the contest — sold out as soon as tickets sales opened, with stadium capacity restricted to 70pc — has overshadowed the other games, as well as other teams. England, the ODI world champions, and New Zealand, the world’s Test champions, head into the tournament as minor favourites in a format where any team can win on its day.
Pakistan have been urged to avenge the heartache caused by the two sides cancelling their long-awaited tours on the pitch and they will have a chance to do that against New Zealand first when they face them in a group game in the Super-12 stage. A match against England, bracketed with the other group, can only come at the finals stage. To get that far though, Pakistan will have to negotiate a tough group — which also comprises Afghanistan and two qualifiers — one of which could be Bangladesh. And a win against India on Sunday could help them set an early marker during the tournament.