T20 World Cup gets underway today

Babar Azam says ten-match win streak in UAE gives Pakistan edge over India

By: AFP      Published: 10:43 AM, 17 Oct, 2021
T20 World Cup
Pakistan's cricket captain Babar Azam exercises with teammates.–AFP (File photo)

Oman and Papua New Guinea open the Twenty 20 World Cup on Sunday in the unlikely surroundings of Al Amerat where the global showpiece gets underway after being chased out of India by Covid-19.

The seventh World Cup begins with a double-header at the 3,000-seat venue outside Muscat.

Later Sunday, Bangladesh face Scotland while Ireland, Namibia, Netherlands and 2014 champions Sri Lanka join the fray on Monday.

The eight teams in the first round of qualifying are chasing four places in the Super 12 round-robin stage.

England, Australia, South Africa, defending champions West Indies, India, Pakistan, New Zealand and Afghanistan will be waiting with all matches in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. 

The top four then progress to the semi-finals before the final in Dubai on November 14.

There is plenty at stake. A place in the next round guarantees a spot in the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia.

There is also a financial incentive. Teams exiting at the first hurdle take home a modest $40,000.

The eventual champions pocket a $1.6 million winner's cheque.

Workers prepare the al-Amerat Cricket Stadium in Oman's capital Muscat.–AFP

Oman are playing in their second T20 World Cup having shocked Ireland in 2016, the last time the tournament was held before the planned 2020 edition in Australia fell victim to the pandemic.

Oman's team is made up almost exclusively of semi-professional South Asian expatriates who combine cricket with full-time work. Many train at 5:30 in the morning.

"There was a time when bowling and fast bowling was the only strength of the Oman team. Now I feel we are doing well as a whole unit," said Oman vice-captain Aqib Ilyas.

"This team is much better than the one in 2016 and we have raised the bar."

Papua New Guinea are making their T20 World Cup debut.

They have already acclimatised to conditions in the Gulf having been in Oman for a month.

Bangladesh have just one victory at the tournament since 2007 but with a world ranking of six, will be heavily fancied to make the second round.

They go into the tournament with home series wins over Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe under their belts.

"We have to be humble and not take anything for granted. We will have to be at our best from the first ball against Scotland," said Bangladesh skipper Mahmudullah who has been sidelined in the build-up with a back injury.

- England narrow favourites? -

The Scots have fallen at the first hurdle in their three previous T20 World Cup appearances, in 2007, 2009 and 2016.

They claimed their first and only win at the tournament five years ago -- an eight-wicket triumph in a rain-affected match against lowly Hong Kong.

"We're diving into the tournament head first really and it's a real challenge for us," said Scotland skipper Kyle Coetzer.

"But we have beaten them (Bangladesh in 2012) in the past in T20 cricket with a Richie Berrington hundred."

The top nations will join the event -- played in stadiums 70-percent full -- on October 23, with Australia and South Africa meeting in the opener of the Super 12 stage and England up against West Indies.

England beat New Zealand to win the 50-over world title at Lord's in 2019.

Eoin Morgan's team will, however, be without Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, who played key roles in that one-day World Cup triumph.

England had to defend 19 runs in the last over of the 2016 T20 final in Kolkata but West Indies' Carlos Brathwaite famously hit Stokes for four straight sixes, giving the Caribbeans their second world T20 title.

Many of that winning team will be back, led by Kieron Pollard and old war horses Dwayne Bravo, 38, and 42-year-old Chris Gayle.

Asian giants India, who were the original hosts of the 2021 event before the pandemic meant a shift to the Gulf, will begin their campaign against arch-rivals and fellow former champions Pakistan on October 24 with Virat Kohli looking to go out with a bang before stepping down as captain of the T20 side.

- Pakistan have edge? -

Ten-match win streak gives Pakistan edge: Babar

Pakistan have won their last 10 Twenty20 internationals in the United Arab Emirates and captain Babar Azam claims that will give his men the edge over India in their World Cup opener.

The arch-rivals will meet in Dubai on October 24 in what will be the biggest clash of the tournament that starts Sunday in Oman and the UAE.

Pakistan have never won a World Cup match against India, but that does not bother Babar who believes familiarity with the UAE pitches will help them break the jinx. "Definitely we have played a lot of cricket in the UAE," Babar said in a captain's press conference when asked about his team's dismal 0-5 record against India in T20 World Cup clashes.

"These conditions suit us and we know how to play here. We need to keep things simple in all the departments."

The UAE was Pakistan's home base after the deadly terror attacks on the visiting Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009 forced cricket out of the Asian nation.

Pakistan, who are third in the T20 rankings behind England and India, also have Afghanistan and New Zealand in their group at the World Cup.

Babar acknowledged that captaining the team in the 16-nation tournament was indeed an honour and said his recent form will give him confidence.

"Good performances give you confidence," Babar, who has hit two T20 centuries this year, said. "I am in form, hence it will benefit me."

Babar, who has over 2,000 T20 runs, tipped Kiwi skipper Kane Williamson to stand out as the tournament's best batter and Pakistan speedster Hasan Ali as the premier bowler.

Meanwhile, India captain Virat Kohli played down the famous rivalry, describing the match with Pakistan as "just another game"

"I have always approached this game as just another game of cricket. I know there is a lot of hype created around this game more so with ticket sales and the demands for tickets," said Kohli.

"Right now the value of those tickets is ridiculously high. So that's all I know, friends asking me for tickets left, right and centre, I refused.

"Yes, the environment, you can say, is different. From the fans' point of view it is definitely louder. From the players' point of view, we stay as professional as we can."

Afghanistan will stick to daring T20 approach, says Nabi

Afghanistan captain Mohammad Nabi said his team will shrug off political and travel turmoil to thrive at the T20 World Cup by remaining true to their philosophy of "daring cricket".

Since the return of the Taliban in the country, Afghanistan briefly faced the possibility of being banned from the tournament if the women's game was discontinued.

Then star spinner Rashid Khan stepped down as captain before visa issues placed yet another familiar hurdle in the path of the resilient Afghanistan team.

All-rounder Nabi agreed to replace Rashid at the helm and played down the turmoil plaguing the team.

"The team is brilliant, they have been preparing for the last one and a half months," said Nabi.

"There was a little bit of a struggle on visas, so they didn't arrive in the UAE early. They were practising in Qatar."

Nabi, like Rashid, was already in the UAE, playing in the Indian Premier League with Sunrisers Hyderabad.

Problematic build-ups are not unusual for Afghanistan.

They lost all nine matches in the 50-over World Cup in 2019 in England when captain Asghar Afghan was sacked weeks before the event to be replaced by Gulbadin Naib.

But Twenty20 is the format where Afghanistan thrive having won 12 consecutive matches in 2018-19 -- the most by any team.

They also hold the record for the highest total in T20 internationals of 278-3 against Ireland at Dehradun in 2019.

Opener Hazratullah Zazai, part of the current squad, hit the most sixes in an innings with 16 in a robust 162 not out, the second highest individual score behind Australia's Aaron Finch's 172. 

Nabi vowed his team will not change their aggressive style.

"This is our mindset to always play daringly," said Nabi, who also skippered Afghanistan in the 2015 50-over World Cup in Australia.

"We have the same approach in bowling, whether they are fast bowlers or spinners."

Nabi added that former Zimbabwe player and England coach Andy Flower, hired as a batting consultant for this event, will lift the team.

"He (Flower) is a great coach and also a great mentor for every player. He knows a lot about the pitches in UAE," said Nabi.

Nabi said he relished regaining the leadership.

"Yeah, it's (captaincy) a tough job but I will try my best to lead the team in the World Cup and perform well in the tournament.

"I am really excited to play as a captain in this event."

Afghanistan will play their first match on October 25 against a qualifier from Group B, likely to be Bangladesh.

They are pooled in Group 2 of the Super 12s alongside India, Pakistan, New Zealand and two qualifiers.