Pakistan look to end decade-long Asia Cup drought but Sri Lanka have psychological edge

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Pakistan look to end decade-long Asia Cup drought but Sri Lanka have psychological edge

Will Pakistan win their third Asia Cup? Or will Sri Lanka be crowned for the sixth time

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It is a tournament Pakistan love but a tournament that hasn’t always loved them back. Pakistan’s lack of success over this competition’s four-decade history has been baffling, given, if history is a guide, there are only three possible destinations for this trophy. For the first half of the tournament’s existence, India and Sri Lanka played musical chairs, with Pakistan kept out in the cold, making only one of the first six finals.

They won the Sharjah Cup, the Nehru Cup and even the World Cup during this time, but the Asia Cup remained elusive. It wasn’t until 2000 that a Moin Khan-led side finally touched the one piece of silverware that Pakistan had been denied. But it took them another 12 years for their next title. It has been a further decade since, and while India and Sri Lanka have split a dozen of these between them, Pakistan cherish the memories of those two.

The tournament has evolved, this particular edition is in the T20 format, and fans been gifted a vintage Pakistan side: wild, excitable, unpredictable, and against all odds, still here. The manner of India’s routing of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka’s subsequent dismantling of Pakistan means those two Naseem Shah sixes really were the difference between qualification and elimination. Now, Babar Azam has the chance to achieve what only Moin and Misbah-ul-Haq have accomplished for Pakistan – the official continental supremacy.

Pakistan have not necessarily looked destined for glory this fortnight, beginning with a final-over defeat to arch-rivals India. They inflicted a loss on that same opponent a week later to invigorate a flagging campaign, but stumbles against Afghanistan and Sri Lanka suggest a lot of work still needs to be done – not just with bat in hand, but, for this young side, also when it comes to keeping emotions in control; there was evidence in that game against Afghanistan that nerves, and perhaps tempers, threatened to get the better of them at crucial moments.

Tempers are less likely to flare in the final, though. Each Asia Cup side has had a complicated relationship with the others, but Pakistan vs Sri Lanka is perhaps the friendliest fixture of all. Throughout most of their history, these two nations have enjoyed cordial relations, and been there for each other in their toughest times. That warmth has been evident on the field as well, and there is no reason that should change.

A Sri Lankan redemption arc, though, is perhaps a neater, easier graph to chart, though nonetheless dramatic for it. Not many would have expected Sri Lanka to be here after they were blown away by eight wickets and almost ten overs to spare in the opening game by Afghanistan. Against Bangladesh, too, they looked done for in a steep chase until Kusal Mendis, Dasun Shanaka, and Bangladesh’s own mistakes saw them sneak through to the Super 4s.

But since then, their campaign has turned around. The batters, right through to the lower order, played modern, aggressive, entertaining cricket that has lit up this tournament, gaining them fans outside that little paradise of an island itself. Afghanistan were swiftly avenged, before a thrilling win against India effectively saw them through to the final. The way their batters held their nerve at the death against India made that win especially impressive as they trumped an opposition that had beaten them in 14 of the last 17 T20Is.

The win against Pakistan in the last game of the Super 4 round perhaps means they go into the final as favourites, but not mentioning the value of the toss would be irresponsible. Only three times has a team defended successfully in the tournament – Hong Kong’s two opponents and India against Afghanistan – and while there have been plenty of close games to suggest it needn’t have been that way, the value of winning the toss cannot be overstated.

Form guide

Pakistan LWWWL (last five completed T20Is, most recent first)
Sri Lanka WWWWL

In the spotlight

Whether you’re Team Total Attack or Team Platform Building, Pakistan’s T20 fortunes are tethered firmly to the kind of day Mohammad Rizwan is having. He might take his time and hold up one end, which gives the rest of the side something of a comfort blanket – that only becomes really apparent in how exposed the side feels when he falls early. Even better for Pakistan, if he could find his timing from relatively early on and get them off to a rapid, if not flying, start. A struggling Rizwan often means a struggling Pakistan, not just because his runs might be missed, but because Rizwan in the right mood lifts the spirit of the entire side. He has become this T20I side’s heartbeat, as well as the bellwether of its performances.

Quotes

“When building a team, it is great for us that different players have stood up when it counts and helped the team win matches. As a captain, this is important for me, and it helps pave the path for future success for the team as well.”
Babar Azam relishes the contributions from multiple players this competition

“As a tournament, looking back, this has been one of the best Asia Cups we have had, and we are looking forward to the final.”
Dasun Shanaka has his eyes firmly on the prize

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