It does not have the pedigree of the Ashes or the charm of the trans-Tasman rivalry but India v Pakistan is the kind of cricket fixture that the people of two countries that share a contentious, violent and historically bloody border can never ignore. On September 19, this rivalry will be rejoined and the military jargon will be back: war minus the shooting, aman ki asha, cricket diplomacy. The match is a winner for the organisers of any tournament featuring the two teams.
The International Cricket Council has gone out of its way to ensure that the two teams play each other at least once in every tournament, and even India’s consistent triumphs over their neighbour in world tournaments has done nothing to dim the aura of these limited-overs matches. While tickets for most matches in the Asia Cup 2018, to be played in Dubai and Abu Dhabi from September 16, are freely available, and as cheap as Rs 1,100 each, almost every seat at the Dubai International Stadium for the India-Pakistan match is gone. If you have Rs 1.2 lakh to spare, there are a few seats left in the corporate boxes.
Before you think this is an India-Pakistan bilateral issue at a neutral venue, it is the Asia Cup. Truth be told, India’s matches against Bangladesh have been more feisty than India-Pakistan matches in the recent past. Bangladesh, with some fairness, feel that their elder brothers across the border do not respect them enough. From players to fans to the travelling media, Bangladeshis believe that the Indian board should do more to support them, that the players should be given their due and that the passion of the fans of Dhaka and Chittagong deserve more column inches. But, the fact of the matter is that Bangladesh, for all their feistiness in limited-overs cricket, have done little in Tests to justify the outrage they feel.
Afghanistan came to India for their inaugural Test with the greatest story in cricket. From refugee camps and dusty towns more known for opium than off-spin, a band of brothers has forced the cricket world to sit up and take notice. Their enthusiasm for the game is utterly infectious and the variety of bowlers they throw up, from left-arm seamers that appear to come from that same factory in Pakistan, to leg-spinners who bowl all sorts the attack is truly that. But, the batting lets them down too frequently for them to be a consistent threat. When they click, however, they can beat pretty much anyone, and in spectacular fashion.
Sri Lanka are the kind of team that permanently go unnoticed. From the heady days of Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva and Muttiah Muralitharan, their cricket team is now staffed by players who rarely make it to headlines. This does not mean that there is any less silk or steel to their batting. Upul Tharanga strokes rather than hits the ball, Kusal Mendis owns the leg-side and Niroshan Dickwella can’t control his cheekiness, try as he might. This is a team that has been short on delivery recently, but if the pitches in the Asia Cup are either on the slow side or take turn, they will slowly but surely come to the fore.
For India, the reappearance of Rohit Sharma and Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a return to a kind of serenity that was missing throughout the England series. Rohit has more time to play his shots than any batsman in contemporary cricket and has a mastery over the white ball that makes him a clear and present danger. Dhoni, well, there are few things about 50-over cricket that he is yet to learn. An astute reader of the state of the game, Dhoni is always ahead of the curve, and his place in the team makes India the most likely to keep their cool in tight situations.
There might be a neighbourly feeling to all of Asia’s teams gathering in the United Arab Emirates to play cricket. But you can be sure no quarter will be asked, and none given. From Testing times in England, it is now over to testing times in the desert. Blue clothes, white ball and all.