Agencies

DHAKA-For the first time, the World T20 will have an eight-team, two-group qualifying competition to decide which two of Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Nepal, Hong Kong, UAE, Ireland and the Netherlands make it to the main draw. There is, of course, the genuine danger of the host nation not progressing beyond the qualifying stage, what with Afghanistan – who stunned it in the Asia Cup recently – lining up as its first opponents. T20 cricket bridges the gulf between the teams more than any other format, so Afghanistan would be silently plotting a coup in the easier of the two groups, even as Zimbabwe, Ireland, the Netherlands and UAE would all quietly fancy its chances from the other pool.

It’s that kind of tournament, really. No outstanding favourite, no complete underdog. The qualifying phase will set the stage nicely for the Super 10, and what better way to set the ball rolling than India and Pakistan in the first match of the tournament proper.

In the three host cities, street corners have been spruced up with more than just the extra coat of paint. Christmas-like lightings have made Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet look quite different. The cricket stadiums have been made to look like someone's wedding is around the corner. Security men, thousands of them, have taken up their positions, flash mob videos have been YouTubed and almost everything else is in place in Bangladesh for the World T20. All except the host nation's cricket team.

Event opener can prove decider:

They play on the opening day, against Afghanistan, with the threat of elimination hanging over both teams. Since only one team will qualify from Group A of the World T20's first round, result of this particular game will set the mood of the tournament in the country.

For Afghanistan, the extra pressure on Bangladesh is an advantage. They have already taken the upper-hand by beating the home side in the Asia Cup earlier this month, and have been talking up this exact phenomenon at every opportunity. They would like to latch on every opportunity, particularly with Shapoor and Dawlat Zadran with the new ball.

However, they have lost some momentum in their last four outings, particularly with the bat. M Shahzad, captain M Nabi, Samiullah Shenwari have to take control of the top, middle and lower-order while at the same time, Nabi and Shenwari have a tough job ahead of them with the older ball.

The return from injury of Tamim Iqbal, Mashrafe Mortaza and Sohag Gazi will be a welcome boost for the home side, but the two senior pros still have be handled with care. Shakib Al Hasan will have a major say on the game too, particularly having claimed the No 3 position in T20s.

Without taking a negative look at the outcome of this game, consider the possibilities for both sides. If Bangladesh win, they will have one foot in the second round, and a chance to ride on the wave of excitement and frenzy of a cricket-mad nation gone madder for its team. If Afghanistan do the same, they will have endless possibilities in front of them and all the bragging rights that an Associate nation can have in progress.

Big moment for debutants: They may be second on the bill but, for these two World T20 debutants, it has never been any bigger than this. T20 has been cricket's major vehicle for growth and the ICC's decision to include six Associates at this tournament for the first time should be applauded but once the coin is tossed at the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium, there will be no time for fraternity between Hong Kong and Nepal.

This time last year, the two teams were battling the likes of Singapore, Bahrain and Malaysia at the ACC T20 Cup for spots at the World T20 Qualifier. In the UAE, Nepal stormed to third place, behind the more established Ireland and Afghanistan, sealing their place in Bangladesh with a last-ball win against Hong Kong, having taken 13 off the final over. The scenes of celebration, at the ground and back home in Nepal, were quite something. Despite losing that quarter-final, Hong Kong saw off Papua New Guinea to secure their own qualification. That seems to have ignited something in a country known more for its banking arm than its sporting prowess.

That win was followed by a stunning comeback against Netherlands, defending 127, with Haseeb Amjad's display of reverse swing helping him to six wickets. Nepal have not enjoyed such a fast start, beaten by Ireland and UAE, but they are eager to give a good account of themselves and, in the words of captain Paras Khadka, "present Nepal cricket in front of the world".

In many ways, the journey to Bangladesh has been the story for Nepal and Hong Kong and it would be a major shock if either was to reach the second round. All games at the WT20 will have T20 international status, so both countries will also contest their first match in the format.