When India fluffed their opening lines against New Zealand spinners, there was serious concern the World Twenty20 could turn out to be a damp squib.
Already there had been huge distraction in the final build-up with the India-Pakistan tie forced out of Dharamsala and Pakistan’s refusal to travel to India unless fresh security assurances were given. However, Chris Gayle, Shahid Afridi and Tillakaratne Dilshan, all well into their 30s and in the final stages of their careers, have ignited the tournament with brilliant match-winning performances.
Although T20 makes huge demands on power and burst of speed, the stars are those who embellish the various franchise Twenty20 leagues. And Gayle has proved a complete package — showman and master of the show all rolled into one.
The day after India’s batting collapse in Nagpur, Gayle’s astonishing knock almost took the record for the fastest Twenty20 International century — South African Richard Levi’s 45-ball effort. The mark was well within grasp but he chose to ease past the line (47-ball 100 in the end), much like Jamaican compatriot Usain Bolt.
Gayle is easily the most popular face in T20 cricket thanks to the franchise leagues around the world where he plays and dominates all year around, attracting many fresh followers and helping blur those national boundaries. Buying tickets for India matches have proved a cumbersome affair, and Gayle has made sure fans make a beeline for West Indies games in big numbers.
While Gayle was expected to explode, few would have bet on Afridi. Although the Pakistan skipper is the original blaster in these parts, he has struggled with his batting coming into his final World T20 before retirement from all international cricket.
But Afridi, as free-spirited a batsman as they come, showed against Bangladesh that if he got going, he still has the brute power to intimidate any bowling attack. His taking apart Mashrafe Mortaza and Co had Eden Gardens cheering, another big example of how T20 cricket has ensured loyalty to entertainment rather than nationality.
Tillakaratne Dilshan, 39, completed the batsmen hogging attention in the first three days of the tournament. The Sri Lanka opener, the man who patented the ‘Dilscoop’ played the shot productively and his off-colour team were grateful his unbeaten 83 pulled them past the line against a spirited Afghanistan in Kolkata on Thursday.
Sri Lanka are already without their potent T20 bowling weapon due to Lasith Malinga’s fitness woes and would have struggled without Dilshan taking charge. If Gayle is all power when he begins hitting, Dilshan’s touch and innovation proved too much for the hard-working Afghanistan.
India will hope they can take over, and that will happen if they overcome Pakistan on Saturday at the Eden Gardens. While that will be a recurring theme, nothing will add excitement than the bowlers taking over from the batsmen next up.