London:Once derided as cheap, sensationalist cricket, Twenty20 could take another step towards becoming the dominant form of the game when its second World Cup begins at Lord's on Friday.
The tournament begins with England taking on rank outsiders the Netherlands _ and having struggled to make an impact at the inaugural event in South Africa in 2007, the host is taking it seriously this time around.
"It is definitely not a silly game anymore," England's Kevin Pietersen said, referring to disparaging remarks he made during the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa in 2007.
"During that World Cup my view changed," he said. "The realisation that you are playing for a massive trophy and in a world tournament against the best means my philosophy about Twenty20 became a lot more serious."
The success of the lucrative Indian Premier League _ Pietersen was handed a US$1.55 million contract to play for Bangalore Royal Challengers _ has focused minds on this newest, shortest form of the game.
The format is still too callow for a dominant power, or powers to have emerged in the six years since its inception, but of the 12 teams involved in the 2009 tournament, eight have a realistic chance of victory and even Bangladesh could ruin a few reputations.
Only the three associate nations can _ barring miracles _ be discounted, though Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands all have the talent to spring an isolated upset.
Of the serious contenders, India is the slight favorite, by virtue of its success in the 2007 tournament and the strength of its domestic league, though a nine-run defeat to New Zealand in a warm-up game at Lords on Monday illustrates how brittle form can be in Twenty20. "I'm quite disappointed with the defeat but we have back-up plans and so I'm not really worried," captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni said.
Daniel Vettori was the architect of that defeat and Dhoni predicted slow bowlers, like the New Zealand captain, would be crucial during the tournament.
"Most of the sides have quality spinners in their ranks as they understand slow bowlers have a huge role to play," Dhoni said. "Spinners, I am sure, will have a bigger impact in this tournament."
New Zealand subsequently lost its next warm-up game to Australia by seven wickets on Tuesday at the Oval and Ricky Ponting's side's knack of collecting trophies makes it another of the major favorites, even if by Ponting's own admission, they have one eye on the forthcoming Ashes series.
The other leading contender is South Africa, which has unfinished business on the world stage.
"One of the boxes we still want to tick is to win a major ICC Championship," Proteas captain Graeme Smith said.
The way South Africa thrashed Pakistan by 59 runs in Nottingham on Monday suggests it might finally ditch its reputation for choking in major tournaments, but Smith added a note of caution.
"It was nice to get some momentum and form going particularly as we had not played together as a team for more than a month but the result does not mean anything in terms of winning the competition," Smith said. "(But) our first goal is to prepare properly and then to get through our two qualifying matches in our pool against Scotland and New Zealand. That is the first hurdle to clear."
The margin of that loss illustrated that Pakistan, beaten finalists in 2007, is one of a cluster of sides, along with England, West Indies and Sri Lanka, with the potential to either win the tournament or make a humiliatingly early exit.
"We are still settling down," said coach Intikhab Alam. "I wasn't really proud of our performance yesterday. It takes at least a week's preparation for a team to get attuned to the conditions but there is nothing to be worried about. I'm expecting a great deal from Younis Khan, then we have people like Salman Butt, Misbah (ul-Haq) and Shahid Afridi who can hit the ball and are tailor-made for this kind of cricket."
Both Pakistan and England should at least make the Super 8 stage _ they only need to beat the Netherlands to ensure qualification from Group A.
For West Indies and Sri Lanka the path is more difficult. West Indies was seeded below Bangladesh and drawn in Group C with the Sri Lankans and Australia.
One of this trio will be eliminated at the first hurdle and despite West Indies wretched form in England and Sri Lanka's unconvincing warm-up win over Bangladesh, it's plausible this could be Australia.
Anyone contemplating a wager on the World Cup should therefore heed Richie Benaud's age-old advice: "Never bet on anything that can talk."