New Delhi: International T20 cricket, struggling to gain a firm footing despite the growing popularity of domestic leagues, will break new ground when the fifth World Twenty20 opens in Bangladesh on Sunday. Tests and one-dayers take precedence over T20 internationals even as successful competitions like the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Australia's Big Bash mushroom around the world.
India, cricket's financial superpower, whose victory in the inaugural World T20 in 2007 sparked the IPL revolution, has played just one international in the shortest version over the last 15 months. World cricket chiefs, hoping to spread the game to newer pastures through Twenty20, have expanded the upcoming tournament to 16 teams from 12 two years ago and introduced a new format. (Also read: Michael Vaughan tips India, West Indies as favourites)
Six qualifiers -- Ireland, Afghanistan, Nepal, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands -- will join Zimbabwe and hosts Bangladesh in a preliminary league of two groups from March 16 to 21.
The two group winners will then contest the Super-10 round with the top eight Test nations -- Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, England, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka and the West Indies.
True to the unpredictable nature of the slam-bang format, the four previous editions threw up different winners each time with India's success in 2007 emulated by Pakistan (2009), England (2010) and the West Indies (2012) -- all away from home.
Chris Gayle, one of the most destructive batsmen in the modern game, warned it will not be easy for his West Indies side to defend the title despite a series win over England this week. "It would be nice if history could repeat itself but it's going to be tough," the left-handed opener said. "We will take it one match at a time. The first target is to make the semi-finals."
Sri Lanka, the top-ranked T20 side, have enhanced their status as one of the favourites by spending more than six weeks in Bangladesh since late January, capped by their Asia Cup victory last weekend.
But sandwiched between a hectic international schedule, the absence of a number of leading players and a lackadaisical build-up by teams, the tournament will lose some sheen.
Australia, South Africa, England and the West Indies will arrive in Dhaka barely a week before the Super-10 round starts, leaving them little time to acclimatise.
The tournament will be notable for its absences such as Australian Test skipper Michael Clarke and his English counterpart Alastair Cook.
England's star batsman Kevin Pietersen will also be missing after his controversial sacking last month, along with New Zealand's big-hitting Jesse Ryder who was dropped for late-night drinking.
South Africa meanwhile will be entering a new era after the recent retirements of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis.
India can at least welcome back skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni after he missed the Asia Cup through injury.
Australia, seeking to win their maiden World T20 title, have debunked the theory that T20 is a young man's game by including middle-order batsman Brad Hodge, 39, and 43-year-old spinner Brad Hogg in their squad.
The tournament, which runs until April 6, will be played under heavy security after election violence at the turn of the year raised fears that Bangladesh's biggest sporting event could be moved elsewhere.
Bangladesh, which co-hosted the 2011 50-over World Cup with India and Sri Lanka, will stage matches in the capital Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet. But plans to host games in the holiday resort of Cox's Bazaar were ruled out after building work on a new stadium fell behind schedule.
Organisers will be praying that Bangladesh defeat the dangerous Afghanistan in Sunday's tournament opener in Dhaka because an early exit for the hosts could seriously affect interest in the tournament.
Afghanistan, who will play their third World T20 and have also qualified for a maiden appearance in the 50-over World Cup next year, stunned the hosts in the recent Asia Cup.
No wonder Bangladesh's premier all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan urged fans to tone down expectations from the home team. "Everyone must take results sportingly," he said. "Too much expectation puts undue pressure on us."