The writer Venkata Krishna B is currently in Pallekele to cover Asia Cup 2023
Thick, dark and fast moving clouds over from the Indian Ocean obscure the bird’s eye-view of Colombo. The Island nation—its topography resembling the drop of a tear—is a different country these days. The long civil war has ended, though some scars might remain, last year’s economic crisis has eased up. You don’t spot people queuing up outside fuel stations or grocery shops; there is no chaos like when Australia landed on these shores last year.
Instead, the Bandaranaike International Airport is buzzing with Europeans and Southeast Asians, an encouraging sight for a tourism-dependent economy. Out on the streets, honks are nonexistent, traffic signals are rare, there is an un-subcontinent discipline. Poya, the country’s biggest festival, has hit the final stretch and will culminate on Wednesday. The usual flair and colour you associate with the country is missing, even in the three-and-half drive from Colombo to Pallekele – where the Sri Lanka leg of Asia Cup begins on Thursday.
Maybe, the culprit is the rain, which has been unrelenting and could be the talking point over the next fortnight. But just like the turbulent short flight across the Palk Strait, the Asia Cup has landed here, having undergone considerable turbulence of its own in the past six months. At one point, the tournament looked like a non-starter because of the tensions between the India and Pakistan cricket boards.
Then, the tournament could not afford losing the two nations that literally make it click, that have enriched the folklore of the fixture. From its inception in 1984, the tournament has expanded from three to four and to six teams, but by and large remains like the Copa America. Like the continental football tournament in America is all about Brazil and Argentina, Asia Cup has always been about India and Pakistan, of their frenzied fans, overflowing emotions and passion of billions.
— Pakistan Cricket (@TheRealPCB) August 29, 2023
Shine and glitter
It is the contest that gives the tournament shine and glitter, where the two teams are invariably pooled in the same group just to ensure there are at least two confrontations. It is the contest that makes broadcasters shell out huge sums. It is a contest that lights up the tournament.
With matches between these two neighbours restricted to only ICC events and Asia Cup, the first of a minimum three games is scheduled for Saturday. It could be four or five if both teams go the distance here and in the World Cup. As India and Pakistan sit on the cusp of potentially five matches in three months, the setting is similar to two other storied football rivals– Barcelona and Real Madrid—in 2011. Four El Clasicos in 18 days brought the already revered rivalry to its edge. It resulted in two managers – Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho – showing their uglier side.
— Pakistan Cricket (@TheRealPCB) August 29, 2023
The only force that could spoil the party for sub-continent fans is the weather, as the monsoon has come alive in Pallekele after a brief lull. Situated on the hilly terrains, it witnessed heavy rains right through Tuesday evening and the forecast doesn’t sound encouraging either. It is the last thing both the teams would have hoped for.
Cricket’s El Clásico
As the World Cup looms large, the Asia Cup is undeniably a big event for these two giants, who are touted to perform well in the showpiece event. Like the El Clasico then, there are no top dogs or underdogs here. Pakistan take the field in the Asia Cup opener in Multan against Nepal as the No 1 ranked team in the world, and have on paper the most well-rounded, balanced attack on paper.
A top-three that looks solid as ever, all they need is a supporting role from their middle-order to emerge as the team to beat in these conditions. As part of their preparations, they had arrived in Sri Lanka a fortnight ago to play Afghanistan in three ODIs before flying back home to finish the Pakistan leg of the Asia Cup. In all, they look a far more settled unit.
With the World Cup returning home, India cut a different piece to what they were in 2011, when they became the first nation to lift a World Cup at home. As a precursor, MS Dhoni’s took home the Asia Cup held here without Sachin Tendulkar and sans Virender Sehwag in the business end of the tournament. Such a scenario could spell doom for this team as they are yet to figure out their ideal eleven. With four of their first-choice players returning from long injury lay-offs and one of them (KL Rahul) already ruled out of the first two matches, they are not breathing much confidence. Instead of using the tournament as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup, India are depending on it to figure out their best combination and discover a settled batting line-up.
Of course, performing well in the tournament may not guarantee success at the World Cup, but it can be a sign of things to come. Last year, when the Asia Cup was held in a T20 format in the lead up to the T20 World Cup, India were out of depth and lost to Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It should have raised alarm bells, but having chosen to see it as a false alarm, they got hammered by England Down Under and failed to reach the semifinals. It feels India are in a similar space once again. Only time will say whether it is déjà vu or not.