If at the start of the tournament, anyone would have predicted that Sri Lanka and Pakistan would contest for the silverware, any sane person would have laughed it off. When Sri Lanka skipper Dasun Shanaka said ahead of the tournament that his team wanted to take the whole thing down as a gift to his nation that is going through their toughest economic crisis, it was never seen as a prelude for things to come. It was, in fact, surged off like they never belonged. The loss to Afghanistan in the opening game of the tournament further accentuated the belief.
However, such has been the nature of the T20 format and the predictability of the UAE wicket that the narrative has taken a complete flip with Pakistan and Sri Lanka securing a Sunday date in Dubai for the ACC Asia Cup final. India are out of the event and the Friday encounter is now nothing but a glorified practice match ahead of the big showdown on Sunday.
For Pakistan, the reality is damning but they have found a new-hero in each match. If Mohammed Nawaz stole the game away from India, it was Naseem Shah’s twin sixes in the final over of the match in Sharjah on Wednesday that ended Afghanistan’s qualification hopes. Despite the absence of Shaheen Shah Afridi, they have controlled the narrative in their favour, a trait that was difficult to ask from Pakistan teams of the yesteryears.
Pakistan also have an elephant in the room to address. Scores like 10, 9, 14, and 0 in the ongoing Asia Cup are not something we associate Babar Azam with and he is due for a big one on Friday. In 78 innings since his debut, no batter has scored more runs than the Pakistani opener in the shortest format, with 2719 runs, averaging a staggering 43.16 as an opener. Ireland’s Paul Stirling and India’s Rohit are close but still 500 runs separate the two from Babar. But look deeply, there is enough reason to be skeptical about his approach.
His starting slow approach has had an eerie resemblance to his partner Mohammed Rizwan’s batting and that is enough of a reason on why Pakistan middle-order have had a lot to own up later. An approach like this might come off once in a while but if it bumps, staring at the abyss would be the only available option. They have to quickly learn from their mistakes and the Friday encounter gives them a perfect opportunity to sort that out.
Even though India cantered home against the Afghans in Dubai after batting first, expecting things to be the same on Friday would be undercutting what the pitches in UAE has stood for in the last three years. There is no impact of dew even in the second innings and toss will continue to be the biggest calling card for both sides.
Dasun Shanaka’s side, on the other hand, are beaming with confidence after getting the better of India on Tuesday. They know a lot of lacunae need to be addressed - like sorting out death-over bowling - but the way they crippled India right from the start tells you the kind of self-awareness they have at the moment. With the big showdown on Sunday, it is a warm-up game for them to fix those holes in their approach.
For the kind of struggle that the Sri Lankans have faced in the last six months, it would be poetic justice if cricket can bring some smile on their faces. It is Asia Cup afterall, an event they have dominated for long before India took over the supremacy. Hence, the inconsequential rubber will have as much prudency in its part to deliver as much as the India-Afghanistan game did. Will there be a Virat Kohli on either side to bring on the euphoria?
Sri Lanka: Pathum Nissanka, Kusal Mendis, Charith Asalanka, Danushka Gunathilaka, Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Dasun Shanaka ©, Wanindu Hasaranga, Chamika Karunaratne, Maheesh Theekshana, Asitha Fernando, Dilshan Madushanka
Pakistan : Mohammad Rizwan, Babar Azam ©, Fakhar Zaman, Iftikhar Ahmed, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Asif Ali, Khushdil Shah, Haris Rauf, Naseem Shah, Mohammad Hasnain