Three possible high-octane India versus Pakistan games for the starved fans on both sides of the border along with a final chance for five nations to put their respective houses in order before the World Cup adds context to the Asia Cup, starting in Multan on Wednesday. It is a tournament that has often struggled to find relevance in the midst of mushrooming bilateral contests over the last decade along with the waning popularity of T20 cricket but the 2023 edition, beginning on Wednesday, has occupied a large slice of the mind space of team think tanks.
It is the final stop for five of the six teams barring Nepal, to find answers for some nagging questions ahead of the global event, starting October 5.
Of course, there are some bilateral and practice matches ahead of the cricket’s big show.
But the Asia Cup, to be played in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, will give the teams the atmosphere of a multi-nation tournament, closely mirroring that of the World Cup.
India will enter the Asia Cup as seven-time champions, most by any team, but adding an eighth title might just not feature on top of their bucket list.
A title win will certainly be welcomed, but the brain bank consisting of head coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma will be eager to see a few pieces fall in place ahead of the World Cup.
KL Rahul has been added conditionally to the India squad and will miss the first two games as per head coach Dravid and time is running away for the Bengaluru keeper-batter to get match-fit for the competition.
While Rahul has shown progress in batting levels post his recuperation from a surgery, his readiness to keep wickets is still under scrutiny as he has sustained a niggle while squatting.
Rahul will be watched closely during the Asia Cup as his presence adds a sense of solidity and flexibility to India’s middle-order.
However, Shreyas Iyer is expected to take to the field when India face Pakistan on September 2 at Pallekele.
Shreyas had gone through extensive drills at nets and match simulation process at the NCA ahead of his selection to the Asia Cup squad.
But the management will be anxious to know how the right-handed batter responds to the rigorousness of a real match situation.
There will be similar levels of anxiety about Jasprit Bumrah and Prasidh Krishna.
The pacers made their return to the India side during the three-match T20I series against Ireland earlier this month after a lengthy injury layoff. They had bowled with intensity as well.
But the demands of ODI cricket is different from T20Is as they will have to bowl 10 overs, besides fielding for 50 overs.
The Indian management will be keen to observe how the pace duo responds to the increased workload in the energy-sapping humid conditions in Sri Lanka.
India remains the main cast of the Asia Cup but Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan will also vie to be within our attention bandwidth.
In their own right, they are compelling teams as well. Sri Lanka, who have six Asia Cup titles, are struggling to find a full squad after injuries to Dushmantha Chameera, Wanindu Hasaranga, Lahiru Kumara and Dilshan Madhushanka.
Chameera, Kumara and Madhushanka can crank up pace in excess of 140 kmph and their absence will be a big worry for Sri Lanka, as they may even miss the action for a longer duration.
Bangladesh’s build up to the tournament as often it happens is mired in cacophony – injured Tamim Iqbal and Ebadot Hosain are ruled out, leading to the reinstatement of Shakib Al Hasan as ODI captain after a gap of six years.
Among the turbulence that other teams found themselves in, Pakistan, surprisingly, offer the picture of a settled unit.
The Green Brigade will be eager to land a title here as that will add an extra dollop of confidence to their World Cup campaign.
Under Babar Azam, Pakistan have also risen to No. 1 in ICC ODI rankings after the recent 3-0 series win over Afghanistan, and they could be peaking at the right time.
That series was the latest episode in the newest rivalry in cricket – Pakistan vs Afghanistan.
It is yet to get hyped at the Indo-Pak level, but the tussle has already offered enough flash points highlighting its potentially explosive future.
The Asia Cup might just add another chapter to it.
So, over the next three weeks we will see rivalries getting renewed and the emergence of some new heroes. But all that is behind the looming shadow of the World Cup.
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