While rain clouds hang heavy over the much-anticipated India versus Pakistan match on Saturday, another intense rivalry, set to unfold at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium on Thursday, shows that the winds of change are blowing.
Signalling a multipolar cricketing world order, the Asia Cup is set to add another chapter to an increasingly storied tussle between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Taking a cue from the platitudes that typically precede a slugfest, captains Dasun Shanaka and Shakib Al Hasan sought to downplay the non-cricketing excitement surrounding the event.
“I don’t think it’s a rivalry, it’s just that we play very good cricket whenever these two countries meet. It’s good for the crowd and the broadcasters,” Shakib said on the eve of the match.
“It’s the noise outside. Between the players, the relations are good. We have a good brotherhood,” Shanaka chimed in.
Ironically, the bourgeoning Sri Lanka-Bangladesh squabble has more to do exclusively with the game than the Indo-Pak or the Afghanistan-Pakistan friction – both of which are underpinned by geopolitical tensions and cross-border bitterness.
While the ‘Naagin Dance’ - a puerile creation that regressed into a full-blown show of animosity – is as far-removed a thing from cricket as can be, it was still conceived between the 22 yards. It is another thing that fans took it beyond the boundary ropes!
The shifting of the balance of power also fed into the lore of the ‘serpent dance’ as it coincided with a period where Bangladesh had started tasting success against Full Members at an alarming frequency.
Shanaka resonated with this when explaining the newfound rivalry.
“It’s about the dominance in Asia. We know how dominant India and Pakistan are. When we come to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka has a history of playing good cricket – in World Cups and Asia Cups we have proven that we are a good side. Bangladesh also is a good team but unfortunately, they haven’t won the Asia Cup or any of the World Cups. They have good potential.
“Before heading into the World Cup, it is very important to play against Sri Lanka or any of the other countries (in Asia Cup). So. That’s where the rivalry begins – they need to start from somewhere. Earlier, Sri Lanka was playing mainly against India, and we came most of the time ahead. But now it’s different. So, Bangladesh wants to beat us first and move on from there. It’s the nature of the game,” he said.
The acrimony reached a crescendo during last year’s Asia Cup when both teams were pushed to the brink of a first-round elimination after losing to an opponent they wouldn’t want to lose to – Afghanistan.
United in distress, they depended on the other failing when they met in their last group match.
Shanaka seemed to think that Bangladesh lacked ‘world-class’ bowlers, barring Mustafizur Rahman and Shakib Al Hasan and that Afghanistan was a tougher nut to crack. The comment wasn’t received well by the Bangladeshis, but the Lankans had the last laugh, and the ‘ Naagin Dance’ bragging rights, as they sneaked into the next round.
A year later, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are united again, this time depleted almost equally due to injuries.
The host has lost three key pacers in Dushmantha Chameera, Dilshan Madushanka and Lahiru Kumara and talismanic all-rounder Wanindu Hasaranga.
The quartet has been replaced by the trio of Binura Fernando, Pramod Madushan and Dushan Hemantha, who have a combined experience of seven ODIs. It doesn’t inspire confidence that Sri Lanka has largely ridden on the robustness of its bowling for its victories of late.
Bangladesh is at sea in the batting department, having lost its highest ODI run scorer since 2022, Litton Das, due to a viral fever. His absence, coupled with Tamim Iqbal’s injury, means Bangladesh will have to contend with the uncertainty of an undercooked opening pair in Mohammad Naim and Anamul Haque, who was drafted in place of Litton.
With serious doubts lingering about its batting depth, the flexibility lent by all-rounders Shakib and Mehidy Hasan Miraz will be compromised.
On the contrary, Sri Lanka is top-heavy, with its openers Pathum Nissanka and Dimuth Karunaratne averaging in excess of 60 in ODIs this year. A brittle middle-order will welcome Kusal Perera, who will return to the format after more than two years subject to his recovery from a COVID-19 infection, and also bank on Shanaka’s finishing touches.
Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also not had the ideal preparation for the tournament. Nine of Bangladesh’s 12 ODIs this year have been against Ireland and Afghanistan, and it lost a home series 1-2 against the latter.
Sri Lanka is on a winning run of 10 matches, but it straddles over a bilateral series against the Afghans and a World Cup Qualifier, where it faced significantly weaker oppositions.
However, similar fates and trajectories make this a tantalising contest, played on an equal footing in a tournament which Shakib says is “very important” and which he is “taking very seriously”.
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