T20 World Cup: curtain rises on the main show of 2021

Tournament kicks off in Oman on Sunday and it's an even contest between the game's big guns

Fifteen years after the first 20-over World Cup, and five-and-a-half after the last one, the biggest cricket tournament to come to the region since, well, Friday is all set to commence.

Oman and Papua New Guinea facing off in front of around 3,000 people, mostly sat on temporary scaffolding stands at a charming ground in a suburb of Muscat, feels a little like a soft opening for a major event.

Tickets were not in quite such high demand for the opening day of the 2021 T20 World Cup as they have been for, say, one week later, when India and Pakistan are reacquainted in global competition.

When the official online platform went live for tickets for Dubai matches in this tournament, queues immediately numbered in the tens of thousands.

Various platforms have subsequently been advertising tickets for that specific fixture at a massively inflated rate. Even Virat Kohli says the shop is shut.

“I have always approached this game as just another game of cricket,” India’s captain said of the October 24 fixture against Pakistan.

“I know there is a lot of hype created around this game – more so in terms of ticket sales.

“Right now the value of those tickets are ridiculously high. Having friends asking me for tickets left, right and centre, and me saying ‘No’ is probably the only change that I experience to any other game.

“The environment is different on the outside. From a fans point of view, it is definitely louder, there is more excitement in the air.”

In many ways, having a World Cup shared between two neighbouring countries in the Arabian Gulf feels entirely fitting.

In a way, it represents cricket going beyond its traditional borders. This is the first time, after all, a World Cup will be played entirely outside of the Test-playing elite countries.

But it is not venturing overly far from its established roots, really. Oman and UAE are just a short skip from the game’s powerbase in the subcontinent, and both contain vast expatriate communities from those countries.

UAE in particular has felt like a World Cup host in waiting for years now – even if it is doing so this time on behalf of India.

It has hosted the Asia Cup in the past. It did its bit to help birth the Pakistan Super League, too.

It has staged at least part of the Indian Premier League three times, including the most recent final on Friday.

The Dubai International Stadium was filled to the 70 per cent capacity currently permissible by Covid safety measures for that showpiece fixture.

Thanks to the Chennai Super Kings supporters who took over the ground, it was a riot of colour, whistles, and general joy. It felt like the good old days were here again.

Because cricket in the UAE does, in fact, have pedigree, history, and “good old days.” In many ways, the “Cricketainment” propagated by tournaments like the IPL and even the T20 World Cup can be traced back to the height of Sharjah Cup cricket in the 1980s and 1990s.

T20 cricket itself suits the place, too. The modern, fast-paced version of the sport feels a neat fit with the edifices of the UAE – from the stunning futuristic architecture of the main stand in Abu Dhabi, to the “Ring of Fire” floodlighting in Dubai.

Even before this competition starts, Dubai International Stadium has staged more T20 internationals – 62 – than any other venue in the world. Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi is third on that list, while the ICC Academy in Dubai is fifth.

While the country gets set to welcome cricket’s greats for a festival of cricket over the next month, UAE cricketers themselves will be the ghosts at this feast.

Two years ago, back in a pre-Covid world when they thought they were trying to qualify for a tournament in Australia, UAE’s qualification hopes floundered amid a corruption scandal.

The fact they dominated one of the participating teams, Ireland, in warm up matches ahead of the competition last week, hardly salved those old wounds.

Of those who are here, who will win? Who knows. None of the story pointers go in the same direction.

England won the most recent global event, and might have been primed to do again here if they had Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer with them.

India are formidable, but must be running on fumes by now. Their leading players have been away from home for months.

Babar Azam, now Pakistan’s captain, has won 11 and lost 0 of all the T20 internationals he has played in UAE. But Pakistan have a losing record to India in both World Cups and T20Is.

So maybe we should all be remembering that name: West Indies. The defending champions are packed with power and T20 nous, plus most of their players have had some times time to acclimatise.

“Most of our guys got the chance to play in the IPL in the UAE, and we are trying to hit the ground running and start on that positive note,” Kieron Pollard, West Indies’ captain, said.

Updated: October 17th 2021, 4:50 AM