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Cricket-mad Bangladesh key to Asia Cup following
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In a cramped calendar, the Asia Cup has little context. However, the unbridled enthusiasm of Dhaka's fans and marketers could give the tournament the publicity it desperately needs
The Asia Cup has rarely been a high-profile event. Soon after leading India to the inaugural Asia Cup title in 1984, Sunil Gavaskar wrote precisely two sentences about the tournament in his book Runs N Ruins, an account of the 1983-84 season.
Nine editions and 28 years later, the competition remains the passing afterthought it was for Gavaskar. Most casual fans will be hard-pressed to remember who the current Asian champions are. Three days before the start of this year's contests, another legendary former opening batsman, Geoffrey Boycott, has questioned whether anybody cares about the Asia Cup.
As tournaments seep into each other - Sri Lanka played four ODIs over the past week in Australia, get four days to zip to Dhaka in time for this event, three days after which their home series against England gets underway - context and interest get quickly drained. So much so that after India crashed out early of the CB Series, some commentators raised the week's extra rest for the team as an upside.
In this time of excess, no stadium has overdosed on ODIs like the Shere Bangla National Stadium, hosting 50 one-dayers in four years, more than twice any other venue. Judging from the voluminous crowds that have turned up for most of those matches, Dhaka may well be the city with the world's biggest appetite for cricket.
The Asia Cup is looking to cash in on that. Even as you head towards the arrival lounge in the city's airport a large hoarding informs you of details about the tournament. Drive around the city and you spot numerous billboards urging you to enter a contest to get free tickets to watch "four nations fighting for glory."
The unbridled enthusiasm of the city's fans and marketers is even more astonishing given the state of the national team. Their captain recently launched a stinging attack on the BCB's pet new project - the Bangladesh Premier League - their best batsman was controversially left out of the squad and only returned after the national selector stepped down, their most experienced player remains on the fringes after a decade of infuriating inconsistency, and their best fast bowler is among the most injury-prone in international cricket and is now returning to the team after nearly a year. And after the hopes raised by some of their performances in 2010, the past year has been a huge letdown.
India, on the other hand, conquered the world title in 2011 before swiftly sliding to mediocrity. As one of their legends announced his retirement, the future of another, at least in the limited-overs game, remains a source of heated debate. The search for possibly the most written-about milestone in cricket history continues next week in Mirpur, though the wait has extended for so long that even the customary "Tendulkar misses 100th hundred" headlines have now disappeared.
With Virender Sehwag rested, the batting rotation policy - a source of much heartburn over the past month - won't be the center of attention, though the identity of their best bowling line-up will. Less than a year after being crowned world champions, only two peripheral bowlers of the World Cup-winning side are in the current squad.
The other World Cup finalists, Sri Lanka, are showing signs of a revival after a horrendous run in the second half of 2011. Tillakaratne Dilshan has revived his scoring touch after stepping down as leader, Mahela Jayawardene's enterprising leadership has won him plenty of accolades over the past month, and their next generation of batsmen is starting to flourish, complementing the heavyweights at the top of the order. Their off-field troubles remain and their spirited show in the CB Series was in conditions completely different to what they will face in Bangladesh, but they will come into the tournament as the most confident side.
The subcontinental team which has had the most successful time in the past 10 months is Pakistan. A year in which the limited-overs captain has a falling out with the head coach is not every team's idea of a stable year, but 2011 will count as a steady and fruitful year for Pakistan, given the many dramas their cricket have been involved in the years before.
The Pakistan head coach job is one of the most challenging and complicated ones in cricket, particularly for a foreigner, and Dav Whatmore will get his first hands-on experience of the difficulty involved during the Asia Cup. The many years of experience in the subcontinent will hold Whatmore in good stead, but the pressure to deliver results will be even greater than usual as he is stepping in after Mohsin Khan's short and productive spell as interim coach.
His biggest test in the league phase will be the match against India. India and Pakistan rarely compete against each other these days, making next Sunday's encounter a rarity in the overloaded calendar - an eagerly anticipated ODI.
Edited by Kanishkaa Balachandran
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo