Twenty20 vision comes into focus

LONDON: Twenty20 may have spawned movie star-backed franchises and a frantic dash for cash, but the world championship is a reminder of how nation against nation contests remain central to cricket.

When Twenty20 was launched as a professional format in England, in 2003, the emphasis was on "fun" and attracting new audiences to the sport.

However, the combination of a game played by professionals and the creation of a World Twenty20 in 2007 has led the format to become an increasingly serious business.

Twenty20 has found itself hailed as both the saviour of cricket and its potential ruination.

Texan billionaire Allen Stanford, who now faces fraud and money-laundering charges in the United States, used Twenty20 as a vehicle for his own tournament in the West Indies.

And the ongoing tax probe into the seemingly more stable and ''official'' Indian Premier League (IPL) threatens to unravel that tournament too.

Officials in England and at the International Cricket Council (ICC) have repeatedly insisted they will not kill the golden goose that is Twenty20.

But an increasing number of Twenty20 fixtures, at all levels, have been shoehorned into already stuffed calendars.

The 2010 World Twenty20, which starts in the Caribbean on Friday, is a case in point.

It is only a year ago since Pakistan beat Sri Lanka in the final of the second edition of the championship at Lord''s.

The tournament, which is meant to take place every two years, is heading to the Caribbean to set it off on a new cycle and so avoid a clash with the 2011 50-over World Cup in Asia.

This year''s edition will be as notable for the players who aren''t in the West Indies as the ones who are.

Twenty20 may be the "future" of cricket but it''s a future the likes of Australia captain Ricky Ponting, England skipper Andrew Strauss and India great Sachin Tendulkar have decided they want no part of, having opted out of the format in a bid to preserve themselves for Tests and one-dayers.

Critics claim the currency of big-hitting, so much a feature of Twenty20, has been devalued by the frequency with which sixes are struck on grounds where boundaries are brought in further and further.

But the international context of a World Twenty20 means that few who were there will forget West Indies captain Chris Gayle smashing Australia fast bowler Brett Lee for stunning straight sixes at the Oval last year.

And, as now Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi proved with his leg-spin, every so often bowlers get their just reward too.

Also, the shorter the format, the seemingly greater chance of an upset as exemplified by the Netherlands''s dramatic win over England at Lord''s in 2009.

Afghanistan''s efforts in qualifying for the World Twenty20 are already the stuff of a Bollywood movie and none of their Test rivals will relish the outsiders as opponents.

The dropping on disciplinary grounds of several senior players after a wretched tour of Australia has weakened Pakistan although in Afridi and all-rounder Abdul Razzaq they have two proved match-winners.

Sri Lanka remain a force, as indeed do India, while South Africa would love nothing more than to shed their "chokers" tag and New Zealand upset the odds.

England have never won a major one-day tournament and few expect that to change in the West Indies. But there are signs that, belatedly, they may be starting to get grips with Twenty20.

And the hosts should not be discounted too in what is an important event for everyone involved in West Indies cricket.

The 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean was criticised for pricing local fans out of the market and a lack of traditional West Indian cricket atmosphere.

If officials have learned from that experience, and the signs are they have, the tournament''s success will then stand or fall on the players'' brilliance. And that''s the same in any class of cricket.