The 2022 Asia Cup, to be played in the T20I format, promises an enthralling ride for fans who would be eager to see the best sides in Asia going head-to-head against each other.
In 13 matches from August 27 to September 11, across Dubai and Sharjah, the top six teams from Asia will be vying for the trophy which was established 38 years ago co-incidentally in the UAE.
The positioning of the tournament comes at a very interesting time. The Covid-19 pandemic forced the tournament, last held in 2018 in the UAE, to be postponed from 2020 to 2022. Then, the tournament was shifted to UAE from Sri Lanka due to the acute economic, political and social crisis in the island nation.
Now, with the Men's T20 World Cup in Australia almost 50 days away, the Asia Cup serves as a perfect platform and of extra importance for all five teams barring Hong Kong to test their preparedness for the silverware in the shortest format of the game.
"It will be the best Asia Cup ever in my opinion. Earlier there used to be India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka but now all teams are dangerous including Afghanistan and Bangladesh. This tournament is very important for all teams from Asia. It is practice before the World Cup, and if you win, it would be icing on the cake, you'll get the confidence if you get runs or wickets against top sides," said Pakistan's left-arm pace great Wasim Akram in a press conference on Star Sports.
There is a lot riding on the Asia Cup for the five teams ahead of the Men's T20 World Cup. Defending champions and seven-time winners India will be looking to execute their attacking, ultra-aggressive approach with the bat, which has given them the desired results in a high-stakes competition, starting with their Group A opener against arch-rivals and two-time champions Pakistan in Dubai on Sunday, who they might face in Super Four and possibly, final.
"They should not change the approach (they have shown of late). Even when I was coach we discussed we were a bit timid at the top considering the players we had down the order. It is the right approach. You will lose a few games in between but if you start winning with this approach you can take that confidence in big games and use the same tactics," observed former India head coach Ravi Shastri.
Sunday's clash at Dubai, dubbed as the 'greatest rivalry' in the world of cricket, will also be the first meeting between these two teams after facing off in the Men's T20 World Cup last year in the UAE, where Pakistan secured a resounding 10-wicket victory over India, their first such victory in Men's World Cups.
While India crashed out in the Super 10 stage, Pakistan were undefeated till eventual champions Australia cut their fairy-tale run in the semifinal. "Pakistan team is on the rise for the past couple of years. They've been consistent, and I think the win against India, although that was a year ago during the (2021) World Cup, gave them a bit of confidence that they can compete against India day in and day out," affirms Akram.
For India, the greatest concern will be the form of Virat Kohli, who hasn't scored a century in international cricket since 2019 and has been in a prolonged lean patch.
Sunday's match against Pakistan will see the talismanic batter play his 100th T20I game and eyes will be firmly on whether he can get his groove back which made him one of the best batters in the world after taking time off the game post July 17.
"He will come back with a calmer mind, because the heat is off. You have been away. Now, what you do will get the tone. He gets a fifty in the very first game, mouths will be shut for the rest of the tournament. What's happened in the past is history. Remember, public memory is very short. So it works both ways. His opportunity here is to get that calmness and then take it one day at a time," believes Shastri.
Even greater concern for India will be how Kohli and a returning KL Rahul mould their game as per India's new attacking approach with the bat. They also have to see who among Rishabh Pant or Dinesh Karthik are in the eleven while seeing the best bowling combination in absence of impact pacers Jasprit Bumrah and Harshal Patel.
Pakistan, on the other hand, are without premier left-arm pacer Shaheen Shah Afridi, out due to a knee injury. With a top three of captain Babar Azam, who is in mercurial form, apart from wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan and left-handed Fakhar Zaman, Pakistan's dependence on the trio will increase, especially with a relatively inexperienced batting order after them.
"The only thing I'm worried about is the middle order. There is no experience apart from Iftikhar Ahmed coming in at No. 4, and then you'll have probably Haider Ali, a young sensation who hasn't been consistent. Babar Azam and Rizwan are the key as far as the T20 format is concerned," remarked Akram.
India and Pakistan will be wary of Hong Kong in their group, who are capable of pulling off upsets. The side entered the main Asia Cup event for the fourth time after beating UAE in the final match of the qualifiers in Muscat, Oman.
In Group B, Afghanistan, under Mohmmad Nabi's captaincy, will be looking to beat the higher-ranked opponents, something they couldn't do in last year's T20 World Cup. Leg-spinner Rashid Khan will be undoubtedly their key player, and Afghanistan would want their batters to step up to the occasion.
Sri Lanka have shown a lot of promise and good results at home under captain Dasun Shanaka and new head coach Chris Silverwood. A good showing in the Asia Cup will bring smiles on the faces of people struggling to live normally back home.
Bangladesh, whose struggles in the shortest format are well-known, will be eyeing an upward swing under Shakib Al Hasan's captaincy. With Sridharan Sriram brought in as the side's technical director, they would be looking to get their mojo back in T20Is.
In all, fans are in store for a joy ride in the T20I action coming from stadiums of Dubai and Sharjah, where the eyes of teams will be on clinching the glittering trophy to be the best side in Asia and fine-tune their preparation for the World Cup.