Ireland and Scotland target top table as T20 World Cup gets under way

Five and a half years since Carlos Brathwaite ended the last Twenty20 World Cup on an unforgettable high, this year’s tournament begins on Sunday with a match for which the phrase low-key doesn’t quite cut it.

As Oman take on Papua New Guinea at the 3,000-capacity Al Amerat Stadium in Muscat the key will be positively subterranean. The first round will feature fine cricket and compelling matches, it will see dreams realised and others crushed, but it also occupies a strange hinterland between humble qualifiers and World Cup proper, and whatever happens in the intervening period by the time a new name is engraved on the trophy in Dubai on 14 November the tournament opener will surely feel vanishingly distant in time, space and sheer star quality.

Not that the opening group stage will lack familiar names. The burden of expectation falls overwhelmingly on Sri Lanka, for whom three finals and overall victory in 2014 seem like distant memories after only three victories in the 20 T20 matches they have played in the past two years. They now find themselves mixing in unfamiliar circles – they have previously played their Group A opponents Ireland, Namibia and the Netherlands in a combined total of two T20s, the most recent in 2014 – and the prospect of them failing to join the superstars in the Super 12s seems simultaneously unthinkable and far from implausible. “I think it’s going to be a really exciting group for the neutral,” says Andy Balbirnie, the Ireland captain. “I’m not sure any team will win all three, I think it’ll be very difficult.”

Ireland last got out of an opening group stage in 2009, but have a young team – eight of their 15-man squad are between 21 and 25 – that should carry none of the scars of recent failures. Among their more experienced players is Paul Stirling, who is currently 15th in the International Cricket Council’s T20 batting rankings and has scored five international white-ball centuries in the past 15 months, including 142 in an ODI against England last August.

“Paul’s hugely important, he’s just got better and better. Now he’s being really consistent and if he has a really good week I think it’ll go a really long way towards us qualifying for the next phase,” says Balbirnie. “The last couple of World Cups have been pretty disappointing for us, but what we’ve got together now is a crop of young, hungry cricketers who I suppose were inspired by that generation and want to go out and express themselves on a world stage.”

Ireland's Paul Stirling hits out during his match-winning hundred against England last year
Ireland’s Paul Stirling hits out during his match-winning hundred against England last year, one of his five white-ball centuries in the past 15 months. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/AFP/Getty Images

Bangladesh’s World Cup record is poor but having demonstrated their quality in winning seven of the 10 T20s they played against Australia and New Zealand in August and September the key question is not whether they should qualify from Group B but how much damage they might do when they emerge, match-honed and battle-hardened, into the Super 12s.

In Shakib Al Hasan and Mustafizur Rahman they have two genuine stars, and their world ranking of sixth puts them ahead of both Australia and West Indies. If they play to their potential their Group B rivals – Scotland, PNG and Oman – will effectively be fighting for one place.

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This is Scotland’s fourth World Cup – their only win so far was against Hong Kong in 2016 – but they struggled to qualify for this one, sneaking through despite losing to Singapore among others in the qualifying groups before thumping the UAE in a winner-takes-all play-off.

More recently they lost a home series against Zimbabwe last month, but have had some good results in their warmups, ending with back-to-back wins over the Netherlands and Namibia, and the 28-year-old opener George Munsey has scored three half-centuries in his past five T20s. They open their campaign against Bangladesh on Sunday and their captain, Kyle Coetzer, believes qualification should be “well within our grasp”.

“There’s definitely a little bit of room for improvement, but we’re on the right track,” he said this week. “The guys are playing well and I fully expect them to bounce back when the World Cup period starts.

Papua New Guinea in good spirits during their warmup match against Sri Lanka
Papua New Guinea in good spirits during their warmup match against Sri Lanka. Photograph: Michael Steele/ICC/Getty Images

Inevitably their rivals are feeling similarly optimistic. “We believe in ourselves, we want to set goals, we want to make it to the second round and play against the best teams,” says Assad Vala, captain of Papua New Guinea, who go into their debut World Cup with the best kit trophy already secure.

“That’s the incentive for us. We don’t want this World Cup to be a one-off, we want to keep going, improving, playing against the best.” The makeup of the group means that games between those three teams, such as the tournament opener, will be key – however low it seems.

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