Which Asian cricketing rivalry is the spiciest? India-Pakistan, Afghanistan-Pakistan or Bangladesh-Sri Lanka?

A strange triumvirate of cricketing rivalries will pop up this Asia Cup. The oldest is India vs Pakistan, but two other battles too come with spice warnings. Afghanistan vs Pakistan of course that even dragged in a retired Shoaib Akhtar during the last Asia Cup after chairs flew around in the stands but the most surprising development in the recent years is the third rivalry: Sri Lanka vs Bangladesh. In some ways, it would have been understandable had the politics centred on the birth of a nation had spilled over to the cricket field when Pakistan and Bangladesh face each other. Instead, Bangladesh’s fiercest rivalry is with Sri Lanka, notwithstanding ‘mauka-mauka’ taunts amongst their fans and India’s. Sri Lanka, usually regarded on par with New Zealand as a nice friendly cricketing nation, get into simmering battles with Bangladesh.

And it all started with a funny dance. When Bangladesh left-arm spinner Nazmul Islam Abu broke into a naagin snake dance, little he would have known it would be the one that ignites a rivalry. From the Bangladesh Premier League in 2016 when Nazmul brought out the hooded-snake celebration much to the amusement of his captain Darren Sammy, it has metamorphosed into a different beast. In 2018, when he made his T20 debut against Sri Lanka at home, Nazmul did his naagin act for each of his four wickets, including when he took out Danushka Gunathilaka. Next game, the last of the series, Gunathilaka took two wickets in an over to win the game and pulled out his version of the naagin. That was it. A month later, the rivalry gas lit by Gunathilaka exploded into a huge fireball during the Nidahas Trophy in 2018 when after a victorious chase of 215, Bangladesh’s senior player Mushfiqur Rahim, who walloped a 35-ball unbeaten 72, pulled out the Naagin dance. Boom.

While most of these celebrations and tensions that followed came in the bilateral series, it has garnered extra eyeballs and attention in big events where these two teams have fought closely-fought contests that have literally gone down to the wire. And considering the Asia Cup got off with a one-sided affair between Pakistan and Nepal, Sri Lanka’s opener against Bangladesh at Pallekele is perhaps the sort of opener this tournament needs.

Sri Lanka have been a world champion in 50-overs and T20s and are heading into the Asia Cup, which it has won a record six times, as defending champions. Even before it attained Test status it produced players who were considered world class. And once it started featuring in long formats it has given the world the highest wicket-taker in Tests. In Aravinda de Silva, it’s the home to arguably the most devastating middle-order batsman since Viv Richards. It has given the sport such graceful, eye-pleasing batsmen who you could watch all day when they build long partnerships. And more than all of it, one of the greatest ever captains Arjuna Ranatunga to grace the game, who looks unrecognizable after a drastic weight loss these days, hails from here.

And facing them is a team of under-achievers who haven’t always walked the talk. They received Test status when they were least prepared and unsurprisingly, for years it showed in the results though they orchestrated a few upsets. Then in the past decade they started living up to the nickname of Tigers, ratcheting up famous wins but at home. But it is a side that is heavily invested in emotions, where passionate fans and following at home reminds you of how cricket was in India in the 80s and 90s. In the ODIs, they have players who can definitely fight for a berth among other teams. The growth is visible and so is the rivalry between the two.

Sri Lanka’s captain Dasun Shanaka shed light into the relationship between the two teams. He started off playing it safe, similar to what Shakib Al Hasan did a few minutes earlier, or rather underplayed it. “The noise is outside,” Shanaka said when asked about the rivalry between the two teams. “Between the teams there’s a good relationship. We can’t control the outside noise. It’s a good brotherhood. We have that respect.”

Shanaka then even spent time elaborating as to why this rivalry has taken shape from a Bangladesh point of view, where he said it was similar to how Sri Lanka approached their matches against India in the 90s, where they took the field wanting to prove a point to their much esteemed neighbours. “Before heading into the World Cup, it is very important to play against Sri Lanka or any of the other countries (in Asia Cup). So, that’s where the rivalry begins – they need to start from somewhere. Earlier, Sri Lanka was playing mainly against India, and we came most of the time ahead. But now it’s different. So, Bangladesh wants to beat us first and move on from there. It’s the nature of the game,” he said.

“When we come to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka has a history of playing good cricket – in World Cups and Asia Cups we have proven that we are a good side. Bangladesh also is a good team but unfortunately, they haven’t won the Asia Cup or any of the World Cups. They have good potential,” Shanaka explained.

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Ultimately, Shanaka would talk about the actual bonding that exists between the two players. In recent times, former Sri Lanka players have joined Bangladesh as support-staff. And the current Tigers coach Chandika Hathurusingha jumped ship from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka a year before the 2019 World Cup before heading to Dhaka earlier this year. Unlike the IPL, which has led to improved relationships between India and Australia players post the Monkeygate, the Lanka Premier League hasn’t been able to improve the relationship between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh players.

“There is an advantage in having been able to play with Shakib in the LPL. The Bangladesh players are sometimes a bit too quick in the way they take decisions. I wasn’t able to learn a lot because he isn’t someone who speaks a lot. Although we played on the same team, we don’t share a lot. When there’s an Asia Cup coming up it’s better not to give your plans away,” Shanaka said.

Bangladesh have often struggled to keep their emotions in check in crunch moments. It has led to altercations with the umpires and confrontation between players has spilled even after the match ends. It has led to even dressing room glass doors being broken. By all means, the drama looks set to continue in Pallekele too.

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