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Cricket in uncharted territory as T20 World Cup starts in Texas

Farewell event?: India's Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli (Punit PARANJPE)
Farewell event?: India's Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli (Punit PARANJPE)

Cricket ventures into uncharted territory on Saturday as the first ever major tournament to be staged in the United States gets under way in Texas with the opening game of the T20 World Cup.

A month-long festival of the fastest and most explosive form of the sport -- which is being shared between venues in Texas, Florida, New York and the Caribbean -- begins with the US taking on Canada at the Grand Prairie Stadium on the outskirts of Dallas on Saturday.

It marks the opening skirmish of the first ever major International Cricket Council (ICC) event to be held in part in the United States.

While the bulk of the tournament will be played out in the Caribbean, 16 group stage games in the 20-team tournament will be played on American soil, including the highlight of the group stage -- a clash between India and Pakistan.

That match is due to be played at a 34,000-capacity temporary venue in Long Island, New York on June 9.

"It looks beautiful," India captain Rohit Sharma told the ICC website ahead of a warm-up game against Bangladesh at the ground.

"It's quite an open ground. When we come here and play our first game, I just can't wait to feel the atmosphere in the stadium."

The rest of the tournament will be held in the West Indies, including the Super Eight stage, the semi-finals and the final, which will be played at Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados.

While cricket is widely played at a recreational level in the United States, with strong presences in all three of the states that have been chosen for games, organisers are realistic about the chances of "converting" mainstream American sports fans.

Instead, they expect that the large immigrant communities from cricket-loving backgrounds, including thousands of India fans in particular, will pack the stadiums.

"I think, number one, we want to celebrate those that are already fanatical lovers of cricket. They deserve to see the best players in the world come into their backyard and have that chance," T20 World Cup USA, Inc. chief executive Brett Jones told AFP.

"Number two, I think it's about spiking curiosity in the game," he said.

The ICC also sees the tournament as a launch pad towards the sport's return to the Olympics for Los Angeles 2028, when the T20 format will be used.

Major League Cricket, a T20 tournament, was launched last year and also stands to benefit from any growth in interest in the big-hitting, spectacular shortest form.

But it is not only the American market that the ICC is focused upon -- the expansion of the tournament has opened up opportunities for newer cricket nations to compete on the big stage.

In recent years, the sport has been able to expand outside of its traditional strongholds with Ireland and Afghanistan earning places in the 12-strong elite with full Test status.

But the ICC see the T20 format as the perfect vehicle for growing the game and this year's edition will feature three T20 World Cup debutants in the USA, Canada and Uganda.

Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Oman are among the other nations who are relatively new to the big stage and who will be looking to make their mark and grab some attention with an upset win.

With the teams drawn in four groups of five teams, with just the top two advancing, none of the smaller nations are expected to progress beyond the group stage and there is a danger the pool stage could mainly be a 'weeding out' process.

- India favourites -

India, winners of the first edition in 2007, are the favourites, with their line-up packed with players from the annual Indian Premier League.

Australia, winners of the ODI World Cup last year along with the World Test Championship, opted to leave out their veteran batsman Steve Smith but big-hitting David Warner and pacemen Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins provide plenty of experience.

Other possible contenders include defending champions England, who will be without the star of their 2022 triumph Ben Stokes, who is managing his fitness after a knee operation. England warmed up for the tournament with a seven-wicket rout of Pakistan in London on Thursday.

Co-hosts West Indies won the tournament in 2012 and 2016 and are hoping that they can benefit from familiarity with the surfaces in the region.

South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan will all fancy their chances of making an impact in a tournament which always produces surprises.

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