Under normal circumstances, the Asia Cup is little more than a pretext to schedule as many India-Pakistan fixtures as possible, but the proximity of the 2023 edition to the World Cup provides teams an opportunity to see where they stand, analyse their major opponents, and tie up any loose ends.
The tournament that begins in Multan on Wednesday, to be played in a ‘hybrid model’, involves five teams that are quite familiar with the conditions expected during the World Cup, and whoever corners the continental bragging rights will go into the mega event in India with renewed vigour.
Pakistan, technically the hosts for the Asia Cup, play Nepal in the opener on home soil, with the major portion of the tournament to be staged in Sri Lanka due to BCCI’s unwillingness to send its team across the border. So, Pakistan will have to fly to Pallekele on Thursday itself to take on India on Saturday. They will be clocking substantial air miles throughout the tournament.
Pakistan are currently the top-ranked side in ODI cricket, and hence go into the next few months with a lot expected of them.
“I needed to take the team to a different level and change its mindset. Now, we have at least 3-4 players in top-10 (of ICC rankings) and when you set a standard, there will be expectations and you have to fulfil those expectations. Performances should be such that the team wins,” skipper Babar Azam said on the eve of the tournament.
As far as Rohit Sharma’s outfit is concerned, a few issues still need to be addressed this close to the World Cup. KL Rahul has been ruled out for at least the first two games of the competition due to a niggle, which puts the wicketkeeper-batsman position in suspense if he doesn’t regain full fitness in time.
The tournament will be an opportunity to test the readiness of Shreyas Iyer and Jasprit Bumrah against high-level competition. The latter, as well as fellow pacer Prasidh Krishna, made a much-awaited comeback in the T20I series in Ireland, but the games in Sri Lanka will provide a more accurate picture of their readiness for the 50-over World Cup.
Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have their own questions to answer in the lead-up to the World Cup. The Lankans will be missing several first-choice players such as Dushmantha Chameera, Wanindu Hasaranga, Lahiru Kumara and Dilshan Madhushanka, adding to their worries. Though they are not the force they once were, the islanders are defending Asia Cup champions and reached the World Cup final the last time India hosted the showpiece event, so they will have high hopes going into the mega event.
Bangladesh has made significant progress in the 50-over format in recent times, but will miss the services of the injured Tamim Iqbal and Ebadot Hossain. The reinstatement of Shakib Al Hasan as ODI captain after a gap of six years is an interesting call.
Afghanistan will expect to upset some big guns again, as is their habit in continental cricket.