Asia Cup prey to India-Pak spat, poor choice of venues

Few know Sri Lanka, cricket and Sri Lankan cricket better than Sidath Wettimuny. Part of their first-ever Test Match in 1982, he has also functioned as the chairman of the national board as well as president of the Asian Cricket Council. The family name is somewhat of a cricketing royalty in the country. Sidath opened the batting with his brother Mithra in two matches as Sri Lanka took its first steps in Test cricket. Another brother, Sunil played in the 1975 and 1979 World Cups. After his playing days, Sidath stayed involved with the game as a match referee and Sri Lanka’s chairman of selectors. When someone with his experience feels that September is not the right time to host a tournament on the island, one has to take it seriously.

“It is unfortunate. Maybe our rains are slightly unusual, but I think normally in September you have these rains. They were telling the other day about their earlier plan to host it in Dubai,” Wettimuny told The Indian Express.

Two of the three matches held in Pallekele were rain-affected, with the highly-anticipated India-Pakistan clash being abandoned after one innings. There is also anxiety over the six matches scheduled in Colombo at the business end of the tournament, starting Saturday, as the forecast is not great for the next 10 days or so either.

“Ideally with the World Cup coming soon, teams could use it to get a grip of the conditions which are a lot similar to India and test their combinations. This is the period they begin to fine-tune. Really hoping the weather improves over the week,” Wettimuny added.

India and Pakistan are scheduled to face off in Colombo on Sunday, and there is uncertainty if there will be a full contest this time as the met office predicts thunderstorms and rain from late Saturday night through the whole of Monday.

It is the latest stumbling block that the 2023 edition of the Asia Cup, that acts as a precursor to the World Cup, has encountered. It all began much before a ball was bowled with India-Pakistan tensions being played out in the open in the lead-up. Pakistan were assigned hosting rights for the tournament but the BCCI refused to send its team across the border citing, among other things, security concerns. Pakistan first insisted on staging the full tournament, then pushed for the UAE as the venue of some of the matches. That too didn’t satisfy the Indian cricket board which wanted, and ultimately got, Sri Lanka as the venue for most of the matches. Even in the island nation, drier places like Hambantota and Dambulla were not chosen and matches allotted to Colombo and Pallekele, which were expected to witness wet weather.

Tensions out in the open

The war of words between cricket administrators on both sides of the Line of Control has continued on the sidelines of the actual tournament, with former Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Najam Sethi accusing BCCI secretary Jay Shah for not allowing the event to be played fully in Pakistan, or partly in the UAE for ‘political reasons’.

“Only Mr Shah can explain why these options were rejected and why Sri Lanka was accommodated against all reason, logic, and rationality. The choice of venues in Sri Lanka was also problematic as we have seen,” Sethi posted on social media.

Shah, on his part, brought up Pakistan’s economic situation and frequent changes in the PCB top brass. He also argued that hosting a 50-over tournament in the UAE at this time of the year would have risked players’ health and fitness so close to the World Cup.

“All the full members, media rights holder, and in-stadia rights holders were initially hesitant to commit to hosting the entire tournament in Pakistan. This reluctance stemmed from concerns related to the security and economic situation prevailing in the country,” Shah said in a statement on Tuesday.

“It’s important to note that the leadership of the PCB underwent several changes, and this resulted in some back-and-forth negotiations, particularly regarding crucial aspects such as tax exemption and insurance for matches.”

At one stage, Pakistan threatened to not just pull out of the World Cup to be hosted by India in October-November as a retaliatory move, but also not feature in the Asia Cup should the tournament take place anywhere outside their boundaries. Pakistan Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif even formed a committee that included Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto to decide if their team could go to India for the World Cup.

It is learnt that Sri Lanka Cricket officials had suggested as far back as July to host the event in Dambulla, a dry region in the central part of the island, but the proposal was turned down. Hambantota as an option was also explored but the port city on the eastern coast, which also falls in a relative dry zone, was locked in logistical issues to accommodate four teams, match officials, commentators and broadcast crew. Shah confirmed on Tuesday evening that the tournament would stick to its original schedule. While it is true that SLC didn’t mind shifting the event to Hambantota, they are also satisfied that it stays in Colombo, and it also keeps the BCCI happy.

“Look, we are happy to have it in Sri Lanka because we have more tourists coming here. Both India and Pakistan are playing here which means a lot of fans will be coming here which is good for our economy because we have had a tough time,” Wettimuny said.

When Dambulla was suggested by the SLC as an option before the schedule was announced, it is understood that the Indian team was not keen on travelling there as they were not satisfied with the otel accommodation. And even in the case of Hambantota, where the stadium is closer to the jungle, the Indian team is believed to have had reservations.

Cricket a sideshow

Halfway into the tournament, Asia Cup 2023 has made more headlines with what has been said off the field than by the action on it. And as the Super 4 stage of the Asia Cup got underway in Lahore on Wednesday before it resumes in Colombo on Sunday, the uncertainty around the weather continues. There are also concerns about the conditions on offer at the R Premadasa Stadium as heavy rains are understood to have affected pitch preparation. Having hosted the Lanka Premier League till August 20, there has been no rest for the surfaces, which were hard to score off in the tournament with a total of 180 touched only once in 11 matches.

For a tournament that is being played just five weeks before the World Cup, it was supposed to be a dress rehearsal. More so for a team like India that is planning to use the Asia Cup to assess where three of their key players – Jasprit Bumrah, KL Rahul and Shreyas Iyer – who are returning from long injury layoffs – stood.

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With only three more ODIs left before the World Cup, time is running out for Rohit Sharma & Co. In the two matches they have played so far, the one against Pakistan was washed out while the one against Nepal was a rain-curtailed fixture. These is a far from ideal situation for a team that desperately needs matches to figure out its best XI.

And now they are here in Colombo. Having reached the city on Tuesday, India didn’t train on Wednesday. Apart from the returning trio, Mohammed Shami is also making a comeback after a break and for a bowler who depends a lot on rhythm, he didn’t look the part during the outing against Nepal.

Unless the weather improves, rain-curtailed fixtures will be of no help in terms of preparation and India will not even be able to address the concerns that continue to show up so close to the World Cup. If the fast bowlers have to find rhythm, Iyer and Rahul need to find form. Without game time, it would be hard to gauge their readiness and it would be too much of a risk to carry two batsmen who have not faced enough deliveries to the World Cup.

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