India's Rohit Sharma and Pakistan players leave the field after their Asia Cup cricket match at the Dubai International Stadium in 2018. The clash between archrivals again will be the highlight of Asia Cup 2022. Image Credit: AFP

It’s official. The Asia Cup is coming to the UAE. The Asian Cricket Council has said that Sri Lanka will remain the hosts while the matches are organised in the UAE.

That was hardly a surprise. In the past, Pakistan hosted the home Test series in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Even the T20 Cricket World Cup was relocated to the UAE when India was lashed by a second wave of COVID-19. Two seasons of the Indian Premier League were played in the UAE. So the country’s credentials in hosting international cricket games are impeccable.

Although India was also considered an alternate venue, it was dampened by monsoon rains. The UAE has no such problems and has organised international sporting events at short notice.

A change in format

So what’s in store for Asia Cup? This year, it has morphed into a Twenty20 tournament from the 50-over One-Day International format. Of the nine teams in the fray, defending champions India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are automatic choices for the main draw. The UAE, Kuwait, Hong Kong and Singapore will play the qualifying round that begins on August 20, and the winners get a chance to test their mettle against the big boys.

In the 13 games that will be played from August 27, the biggest draw will be the India-Pakistan encounter. The clash of the archrivals is always the highlight of any tournament. In the Asia Cup, they may face off twice. That’s a double delight for cricket fans from the subcontinent, and they are a legion among the large expatriate population in the UAE.

Who are the fancied teams?

Seven-time titlists India and twice winners Pakistan are indeed a cut above the rest. But that does not rule out the chances of other teams. Pakistan, who have been in fine form in all formats, are hot contenders, while India has had mixed fortunes. But India have been resting several senior players, while some stalwarts are still recovering from injury. They have a title to defend.

Bangladesh, three times runners-up, have not been able to find that extra bit to win the championship. They fight ferociously and are a serious threat to every team in the tournament.

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Five-time champs Sri Lanka continue to go through the rebuilding phase after the departure of Mahesh Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Lasith Malinga. They are yet to mould themselves into a real force, although they have plenty of talent in Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Charith Asalanka, Wanindu Hasaranga, Maheesh Theekshana, among others.

Afghanistan, the newbies among heavyweights, always want to prove why they belong to the cricketing elite. The bunch of highly talented cricketers can be a handful but are often undermined by a lack of experience. Their ace Rashid Khan is one of the most sought-after leg-spinners in T20 leagues worldwide. The Afghans could engineer a few shockers.

These five teams have plenty of avid supporters in the UAE. So the stadiums will be filled with flag-waving, drum-beating hordes of expatriates. They can’t wait for the action to start.

Let the best team win!