Yes, cricket. Not the stodgy stereotype of the game, but the caffeinated, raucous variety that will appeal to our quick-trigger attention spans. The 2012 ICC World Twenty20 kicked off Tuesday in Sri Lanka with enough exciting storylines and high-octane drama to draw in the most indifferent of sports fans. Below are 12 players to watch as the tournament progresses.
Yuvraj Singh, India: He's India's Mario Lemieux, the comeback kid. Singh's story could be the highlight of the tournament. One of India's most heralded players, Singh is making a return to the game after battling a rare form of germ-cell cancer. After receiving chemotherapy in the U.S., Singh is back in the form of the game he's dominated in the past, including his unforgettable six sixes in one over against England in the 2007 ICC World Twenty20. If he plays as well as he has in the past, it's going to be a long tournament for bowlers.
Chris Gayle, West Indies: Called "The King of the Twenty20," the Herculean all-rounder doesn't hit cricket balls, he pulverizes them into aerial spectacles. During a match this year, one of Gayle's monstrous sixers broke the nose of a 10-year-old girl in the stands. When Gayle visited her in the hospital, she actually said it was an honor to be hit by one of his shots. Gayle has set batting records in the Twenty20 format, including the most sixes in the latest Indian Premier League season. For Gayle, playing in Sri Lanka is like Chipper Jones at Shea Stadium; he dominates. He scored 333 runs in a test match there in 2010.
Lasith Malinga, Sri Lanka: Malinga is the Boba Fett of cricket bowlers. Instead of collecting Wookiee scalps, the fast bowler collects wickets. Known as "The Slinga," Malinga is the only bowler to have taken four wickets in four deliveries and won the golden wicket in the 2011 Champions League Twenty20, when he had the highest wicket count in the tournament. With his trademark hair that fluctuates from blond streaks to Valderrama-chique, Malinga has had a rough go in the few months since the Indian Premier League ended. However, he's on home soil. He knows these fields better than anyone else. So be warned: The Slinga will strike back.
Brendon McCullum, New Zealand: The Kiwi wicketkeeper has the top spot in the Twenty20 batting rankings despite the fact that he would make a hobbit seem tall. Standing a diminutive 5-foot-7, McCullum exhibits Hack Wilson-like strength in putting up crazy power numbers. He slugged a 158 not out in the IPL inaugural season in 2008. Indeed, this one possesses the power of the ring.
Shane Watson, Australia: The all-rounder from Down Under resembles the Eric Byrnes-surfer type. However, don't mistake this guy for a slacker Spicoli, because he's one of the best in the game at this format, with worthy performances in the IPL. Australia struggles in the Twenty20 format, thus Watson's ability to stay consistent will determine in a big way how far his team goes.
Saeed Ajmal, Pakistan: There indeed is a country for an old man. At least in cricket terms. Ajmal, 34, is having R.A. Dickeysian success, becoming a spinner extraordinaire as he’s gotten older. His doosra pitch is like Dickey's knuckleball. He's become the top bowler in Twenty20 with his salmagundi of spin bowls. Pakistan is a Twenty20 powerhouse and Ajmal will provide magic.
Brendan Taylor, Zimbabwe: At 21, he helped lead Zimbabwe to a thrilling upset of Australia in the ICC 2007 Twenty20 tournament with 60 runs. Now that he's in the captain's seat, he will lead the batting attack and also play wicketkeeper. Still, Zimbabwe will look to play spoiler once again in the Group C bracket.
Kevin O'Brien, Ireland: It's not about the luck of the Irish this time around. In 2011, O'Brien led Ireland in a momentous upset over England in an ICC World Cup match and etched his name in Irish lore with his 113 runs from 63 balls. If O’Brien (whose brother Niall also plays for the Irish) continues to play the way he has, there's no doubt they'll be singing his praises in pubs for years.
Richard Levi, South Africa: The young gun lit the cricket world aflame with his breathtaking and record-breaking 117 unbeaten against New Zealand in February. The performance won him the ICC Twenty20 International Performance of the Year. He might be a one-trick Protea, though, as he's struggled ever since. A return to form for the 24-year-old will be key if South Africa is to restore balance to its lineup. There's no bigger stage to start.
Shakib Al Hasan, Bangladesh: The former captain is easily Bangladesh's best player. The all-rounder will lead a talented but underachieving group through the toughest of first-round matchups that include Pakistan and New Zealand. Hasan is a big-game producer who can affect outcomes both as a batsman and bowler.
Hamid Hassan, Afghanistan: Afghanistan is the Rudy, the Little Giants, the Mighty Ducks of cricket. The underdog’s inspiring story has become an international sensation. Hassan's life is part of that tale. A refugee who sought haven in Pakistan from the destruction in his own country, Hassan learned the game despite indifference from a family who wanted him to concentrate on his education. Years later he can bowl up to 90 mph and is one of the brightest lights to represent Afghanistan.
Stuart Broad, England: The defending champions are the favorites for a repeat, but there’s no telling how they’ll do without the leadership of star Kevin Pietersen, who was left off the squad for this tournament. Broad, aka Draco Malfoy of “Harry Potter” lore, is the new leader of the squad, and though just 26, he’s well positioned to continue England’s success. He was regarded as the future of English cricket, but he’s been captain for 18 months. His future is now.