Grost Islet (St.Lucia): After recent tremors that rocked their cricketers, Pakistan are confident of defending the T20 World Cup title they won nine months ago as their war-torn neighbours Afghanistan make their debut in a major international cricket tournament, starting in Guyana on Friday.
The 12-nation tournament, supposed to be a biennial event, was played thrice in successive years owing to an anomaly in the world organisation`s Future Tour`s Programme.
Cricket is back in the Caribbeans, still smarting under a disappointing and yet an eventful 50-over World Cup three years ago. It will be played in the islands of Guyana, Barbados and St. Lucia as the exciting shortest version is fast catching the imagination of cricket fans world over. With two World Cups and three editions of the Indian Premier League, there is a surfeit of the Twenty20 stuff.
The image of the sport is somewhat sullied as it grapples with allegations of match-fixing and corruption in the IPL, but it hardly seemed to affect the fan following as the stadiums are packed and there are more eyes riveted on it with TRPs zooming.
Pakistan, Bangladesh and Australia are in Group A while Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Zimbabwe are in Group B. The 2007 champions India, South Africa have been clubbed with Afghanistan in Group C while hosts the West Indies, England and Ireland are in Group D.
There are no clear favourites -- and there cannot be in a sport where the fortunes of a team take twists and turns in no time.
Since winning the title last year in England, Pakistan have seen worst of the controversies with indefinite bans on World Cup winning captain Younis Khan and top batsman Mohammad Yousuf, who in a pique announced his retirement from international cricket.
Another former captain Shoaib Malik and all-rounder Rana Naved are serving 12-month suspensions as a Pakistan Cricket Board probe panel found them guilty of causing conflicts in the team during their disastrous tour to Australia last year.
Even new captain Shahid Afridi, and the Akmal brothers Umar and Kamran, are on probation. Pakistan are living down the controversies and hope to redeem themselves with a good showing here.
They have enough fire-power to defend their title. Umar, who was the star performer during the team`s tour Down Under, Afridi, Misbah-ul-Haq and Kamran will be Pakistan`s mainstay in batting while lanky fast bowler Mohammad Aamer, spotted by the legendary Wasim Akram, will surely be the player to watch out for.
The expectations are high as well from their neighbours India since the players are in the Twenty20 mode following their IPL stint. After a second round exit last year, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Co. have set their eyes on regaining the trophy they won in the inaugural year in South Africa, beating Pakistan.
One of the biggest stars in world cricket, Virender Sehwag will be missing from action due to an injury, but India boast the best batting line-up in the tournament. Their bowling, however, is a matter of concern for Dhoni.
Fast bowling spearhead Zaheer Khan and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh have been among wickets for Mumbai Indians, runners-up in the IPL. Dhoni will also rely on a host of part-timers Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Yusuf Pathan, and Yuvraj Singh, who have shown the knack of breaking threatening partnerships.
The spotlight will also be on Australia, who tasted the ignominy of a first round exit last year. They will have new captain in Michael Clarke, who has Shaun Tait and Dirk Nannes to rattle the batsmen. Nannes was part of the Netherlands side that defeated England at Lord`s in last year`s tournament.
The Australians are in good shape, having lost only one of their last five Twenty20 internationals. Cameron White, David Warner, David Hussey, Mitchell Johnson are some of the big hitters who can make a big difference.
The West Indies at home can be favourites and their showing this format has been pretty exciting. Semi-finalists last year, West Indies start their campaign against Ireland Friday before taking on England, who they defeated last June to reach the semi-finals.
West Indies skipper Chris Gayle, a Jamaican, admitted that home advantage also brings in some pressure. But he said his side was focussed on delivering.
Last year`s runners-up Sri Lanka have a sprinkling of match-winners, Muttiah Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya telling the cricket world that age is no bar in any form of the game.
The world will be watching Afghanistan with keen anticipation, if nothing for their fairytale rise. They are not expected to gobble up teams like India and South Africa, but they can create an impression with their spirited approach that brought them this far from the bottom of the heap.