Asia Cup final: Best of frenemies Pakistan and Sri Lanka set for another edition of old, but cordial rivalry

After the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Super Four game ended and the players waited for the presentation ceremony, Babar Azam and Wanindu Hasaranga were spotted engaged in a chat near the boundary rope. Both were chuckling and guffawing, even though Hasaranga had taken out Babar in the match. Beside them, Mohammad Rizwan, Dasun Shanaka and Kusal Mendis were rolling in laughter. Not far from them Maheesh Theekshana was obediently listening to Saqlain Mushtaq, like an apprentice to a master. Some time ago, Wasim Akram was seen talking to Sri Lanka’s left-arm seamer Dilshan Madhushanka. As the players exited the stadium, a horde of Sri Lankan fans sought the autograph of Naseem Shah, just as a few Pakistan teenagers were queuing up beside Hasaranga for his signature.

Evident thus was an overwhelming camaraderie, an uncomplicated natural friendly vibe, not one for the camera, but one fostered by their frequent cricketing exchanges, their shared experience playing in leagues around the world and historically smooth cricketing ties. So much so that it’s the most harmonious of cricketing rivalries in the subcontinent, unstained by geopolitical tensions or cultural antagonism. Pakistan-India match-ups might be devoid of the old hostility, but it is still an intense rivalry with deep nationalistic undertones, so much so that another bilateral series between them is a distant possibility. Pakistan-Afghanistan encounters could be crudely bitter affairs, as was witnessed in Headingley and Sharjah. Pakistan-Bangladesh match-ups too have an uneasy, expected layer of friction. Bangladesh-Sri Lanka face-offs, a pure cricketing rivalry though it is, have of late turned spicy, replete with heated barbs and cartoonish charades. So have India-Bangladesh duels turned out to be.

Among the mutually squabbling South Asian cricketing siblings exists the Pakistan-Sri Lanka rivalry as an island of peace. Not that they have no reasons to emerge as a feisty rivalry, from the mid-90s to mid-2010s, they competed for continental and global glory, had players capable of turning the scene ugly, and there was a terrorist attack on Sri Lanka’s team bus in Lahore, yet they have maintained firm and cordial ties, cricketing-wise as well as diplomatically.

In troubled times, they have been by each other’s side, lugging onto the shoulder. Upon cricket’s resumption in Pakistan, no team has toured the country as frequently as Sri Lanka have. In the last five years, they have travelled to Pakistan three times, twice for white-ball series and in 2019 for Test matches. No team had visited the UAE for a full-fledged series against Pakistan as much as Sri Lanka (three times in seven years) had either. They were each other’s dial-a-friend lifeline.

Similarly, Pakistan toured Sri Lanka early this year, at the peak of the national crisis. There was a widely circulated meme of Babar and Lankan Test skipper Dimuth Karunaratne holding their hands with an under-script: “Divided by cricket, united by Chinese debts.” Sometime before the tour, then Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan donated Rs 52m for Sri Lanka’s sports development. In the eighties and 90s, at the heyday of the Civil War in Sri Lanka, when teams feared travelling to the island, Pakistan were not held back by inhibitions. “Sri Lanka always has a special place in my heart. I have people who I could call friends and brothers, relationships developed during my cricketing days,” Imran would say during the visit.

Not playing by the book

There is a deeper cricketing affinity between them too. Unorthodoxy has flourished in both countries — who else would have produced outlier talents such as Shoaib Akhtar, Lasith Malinga or Muttiah Muralitharan? Which other countries would have provided the fertile grounds for the carrom ball and doosra to develop, or the Dillscoop and reverse-sweep? Where else would players who had played just tape-ball or beach-ball cricket on streets and beaches be plucked from obscurity and pitched into international cricket. Who else would have produced leaders like Imran and Arjuna Ranatunga, or stylists like Saeed Anwar and Aravinda de Silva? There are heart-warming life stories, cricketers from deep interiors, those fighting poverty and battling floods and tsunamis, those emerging from outside the cricketing systems.

In a sense, theirs is the ideal sporting rivalry. Fiercely competitive and gentlemanly on the field, and friendly off it. One can remember a raft of classics the two teams have dished out, yet not an instance where they were locked in a bust-up or pre-game rattle, or scandals or gossip. After the Super Four match on Friday, both skippers lavished praise on each other. Shanaka said: “Don’t be fooled by Pakistan’s performance [on Friday], they are a good team and could beat anyone on their day. We have seen that several times and we know the quality they possess.” His counterpart Azam reciprocated at the presentation ceremony: “Even after they lost to Afghanistan in the first match, we never wrote them off. Today, they showed you why and they have been the most consistent team in the Asia Cup.”

Both made a mockery of pre-tournament odds, where India were predicted to encounter Pakistan. A dream final of sorts. The possibility seemed even more realistic when Afghanistan thumped Sri Lanka in the opening fixture. But thereafter, they scripted a stunning turnaround, as only Sri Lanka, or Pakistan, can. They went on to win four games on the trot — three in the last over and one comprehensively. But with each game, they kept unearthing more heroes. Apart from the usual suspects like Hasaranga, Bhanuka Rajapaksa and Shanaka emerged new heroes like Pathum Nissanka, the feisty opener, Madushanka, the left-arm seamer and Theekshana, the mystery spinner. An old hero remerged too — Mendis. The words of former Bangladesh cricketer Khaled Mahmud, that they don’t have a world-class bowler, turned out to be a spur-on in hindsight. Shanaka dwelled on that again on Friday, rather indirectly: “Bowling combination, starting with left-arm fast bowler, off-spinner, leg-spinner, variation from the spinners, any kind of batting line-up will be challenged. The combination as well as the variation we have is amazing,” he said.

But the Lankan top order is vulnerable to pure pace. Haris Rauf and Mohammad Hasnain made them look like novices at times in the Super Four game. So had Afghanistan left-arm seamer Fazalhaq Farooqi and Bangladesh’s Ebadot Hussain. With Naseem Shah returning for the final, and a bouncier and quicker surface expected for the game, a baptism by pace awaits them. That’s how Pakistan have historically won tournaments, with the magic and mystique of the pacers. Think of Wasim Akram in the 1992 World Cup; or Mohammad Amir in the 2017 Champions Trophy.

Living on the edge

On the other hand, Pakistan kicked off the tournament as overwhelming favourites but had to scrape through nervous moments, both their Super Four victories being exceedingly tight. They were beset with unusual problems — like the indifferent touch of Azam, the flaky middle order and an erratic Rizwan, who would look sublime one day and banal the next. Apart from Rizwan with 256 runs, no other Pakistani batsman has scored more than 100 runs in the tournament (Babar 63, Fakhar Zaman 96, Asif Ali 41, Khushdil Shah 56 and Ifthikar Ahmed 73). But little doubt that they have the mettle and quality to reverse the tide and put on a larger-than-life show in the final. Saqlain defended each of the spaces that had been holding Pakistan from fully blooming.

On Babar, he said: “It is just that his luck is not going his way. The kind of boundaries he has hit against India. A batter with deeper eyes will say that his form is fine. It is his luck which is not going his way.” On Rizwan: “Rizwan is superhuman and he is very spiritual, the energy he brings to the team is amazing.” On the middle order: “They have done well against India and Afghanistan when we chased. You might think that it was a small total and Naseem Shah won it for us but all 11 players batted. We have a big-match temperament.” And the arsenal of bowlers—the fast bowling trio has wizardry and the spin pair of Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz smarts and nous.

None, thus, would dispute that Pakistan could reverse the Super Four defeat. Then none would argue that Sri Lanka don’t possess the ammo to rattle Pakistan either. Both have imperfections, but both have the incandescence to beat any team in the world on their day as well. Thus, an ideal final between ideal rivals, unbound by geopolitical tensions and bound by warm diplomatic and cricketing ties.

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