On August 30, the early morning rain-washed streets of Kandy were lined with devotees assembled for the evening procession of the Esala Perahera. The 10-day festival, a homage to the relic of the tooth of Buddha and perceived as a harbinger of rain, was in its home stretch. Despite a worrying dry spell in the country, the relief the showers brought was tempered with concern. Sri Lanka was to begin its Asia Cup title defence the following day against Bangladesh in Pallekele, and the island country was keen to put on its best behaviour after ceding the hosting rights of the previous edition to the UAE.
Seven of the nine games were interrupted by the island’s mercurial rain, and Sri Lanka embodied the essence of the fickle weather in a 10-wicket defeat against India in the final as Mohammed Siraj’s mesmerising six-wicket haul ended the summit clash, the third-shortest completed game in the format, in the blink of an eye.
But the Asia Cup, for the second time in a row, was more than an end in itself. As much as the T20 variant of the tournament had laid bare India’s shortcomings in the shortest format in 2022, the tournament this year was just the tailwind India needed heading into a World Cup campaign at home.
While the Asia Cup title marked India’s return to winning ways in multi-nation tournaments, it was the fine print that augurs well for the team as it shifts its focus to ending its 10-year drought in ICC events.
Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill’s brisk starts in the PowerPlay showed India wasn’t beholden to the template of gradual acceleration and could take format disruptors such as England by the horns. India’s pace ace Jasprit Bumrah, faced with the rigours of one-day cricket after more than a year, amped up his pace gradually, built dot-ball pressure upfront, and his four wickets in three matches proved that his skills and variations weren’t casualties of a back surgery. A rejuvenated Kuldeep Yadav all but ended India’s hunt for a wicket-taking spinner who could prey on spin-friendly tracks at home, while Siraj’s epochal spell in the final locked India’s first-choice attack for the World Cup.
KL Rahul’s fitness was imperative for a side that depends on his batting and wicketkeeping for depth and flexibility. After missing the first two games, he allayed all doubts with a masterclass in innings-building against an injury-hit Pakistan attack. At the other end, he had Virat Kohli cranking through the gears and shuttling between the wickets with stupefying speed in a 233-run unbeaten partnership, and suddenly, after a two-day, one-day game, India looked like the team to beat.
The script had drastically flipped since India’s first confrontation with Pakistan’s pace trio, which blew the top-order away in a washout in Pallekele. In hindsight, that was a timely test for an under-fire middle order, and Ishan Kishan and Hardik Pandya emerged as unlikely heroes with an alliance of grit and maturity.
A batting collapse against Sri Lanka’s trial by spin and a shock defeat to Bangladesh in the Super Four reiterated the middle-order’s struggles against spin, particularly against the left-arm orthodox type. And yet there were silver linings to them, notably the ability to defend low scores and Gill’s first ODI hundred in a run-chase that showcased his evolving temperament in trying conditions.
Two 10-wicket wins and a washout out of a total of six games restricted India’s preparations in terms of game time, and some questions undoubtedly linger. With Kishan earning his stripes, Shreyas Iyer’s seamless transition back into the eleven upon regaining full fitness could stir a hornet’s nest. Even as Pandya’s return to bowling at good pace and probing lengths bodes well, the bowlers weren’t pushed to the limit, and there were only five instances of them completing their complement of 10. That could also force the team to revise its strategy of shoring up the batting with Axar Patel and Shardul Thakur by fielding a bowler short when more formidable opponents come calling.
Despite the tournament’s questionable scheduling and the exclusive provision of a reserve day for the Indo-Pak Super Four contest dominating a large part of the discourse, the continental event served its purpose as a fertile testing ground as teams brace for firmer challenges on Indian shores.
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