Hosts India are favourites to clinch the sixth edition of the World Twenty20 in what could be a fairytale ending to the glittering career of captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
India, ranked number one in the world, will seek to become the first side to win the International Cricket Council (ICC) title on home soil when the 16-team tournament gets under way on Tuesday.
They are also gunning to become the tournament’s only two-time winners, with South Africa, Australia and the mercurial West Indies shaping as leading threats.
Australia, the top-ranked Test side, are desperate to win their first World Twenty20 crown, while Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir will play his first ICC tournament since returning from a five-year spot-fixing ban.
India come into the tournament on the back of an eight-wicket win over Bangladesh in the Asia Cup final, and have several key batsmen and bowlers in form.
“We are on track for the World T20,” a confident Dhoni said after Sunday’s victory.
India’s hot streak of 10 wins from their last 11 T20 internationals, coupled with their vast and boisterous home support means Dhoni’s men will be tough to beat.
“I think India will win. Their players know the pitches and they’re playing good cricket against the best teams in the world at present,” said West Indies legend Brian Lara.
India also have added incentive to lift the trophy on April 3 at Eden Gardens in Kolkata because of the fact that the tournament may mark Dhoni’s swansong.
Dhoni, who led India to the inaugural title in 2007, has struggled with the bat of late and turns 35 this summer. A second World Twenty20 crown would be a fitting end to the wicketkeeper’s career.
– ‘A treat to watch’ –
In-form batsman Virat Kohli and deadly off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin are expected to be the key men for India, who are hosting the championship for the first time.
The home side start their campaign against New Zealand on March 15 before playing arch-rivals Pakistan in Dharamsala four days later in a hotly awaited clash.
Pakistan endured a disastrous Asia Cup, thanks largely to some atrocious batting, and any hopes they have of making an impression will rely on the performances of the controversial Amir.
The 23-year-old fast bowler was banned and jailed for deliberately sending down no-balls in a Test match against England in 2010.
But he has been in good touch since re-entering the international fold earlier this year, and lit up the Asia Cup with a devastating 3-18 spell in Pakistan’s loss to India.
“The way he bowled… it didn’t look as if he was making a comeback after five long years. It was a treat to watch,” former Pakistan captain and now Afghanistan coach Inzamam-ul-Haq told AFP.
Second-ranked South Africa are hoping to spoil India’s party and come into the tournament full of confidence following a T20 series whitewash against England.
The Proteas have never won the World Twenty20 but anything less than the final will be considered a failure for the Faf du Plessis-led side, who boast top run-scorers AB De Villiers and Hashim Amla and leg-spinner Imran Tahir.
Defending champions Sri Lanka are a shadow of the side that won in Bangladesh two years ago and have struggled to come to terms with the void left by legends Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene.
The West Indies’ tilt at a second title have been hit by injury withdrawals and a bitter pay dispute with squad members arguing with the country’s board over fees to play in the tournament.
Experienced batsman Darren Bravo, all-rounder Kieron Pollard and off-spinner Sunil Narine are all out but it would be unwise to write off the third-ranked Windies, especially when they boast the big-hitting Chris Gayle.
The preliminary round starts on Tuesday, with Afghanistan and Bangladesh favourites to join the big eight teams in the Super 10 group stage.
In Tuesday’s opening matches, Hong Kong take on Zimbabwe and Afghanistan play Scotland.