As the 14th edition of the Asia Cup is about to begin in Dubai on Saturday, the top Asian teams eye onto clinching the coveted title.
As always the entire cricket fraternity is looking forward to the high-octane clash between arch-rivals India and Pakistan which surely is going to amuse the cricket fans around the world.
Officially, though, the Asia Cup begins with a match between five-time champions Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in Dubai on Saturday.
Pakistan will open their Group A campaign against qualifiers Hong Kong on Sunday — also in Dubai.
Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka form Group B and will play their matches — barring the first — in Abu Dhabi.
According to the format released by the Asian Cricket Council (ACC), two teams from each group will qualify for the Super Four from where top teams will play September 28 final, also in Dubai.
On-field matches featuring the traditional foes, which attract millions of viewers around the cricket world, have fallen victim to political stand-offs between the two warring neighbors.
Their most recent meeting was in the Champions Trophy last June when Pakistan upset a formidable India by 180 runs — their biggest win over archrivals.
India will be without their regular captain Virat Kohli who is rested for the tournament after a long tour of the UK which ended earlier this week with a 4-1 defeat for them.
But even without Kohli India, led by the dashing opener Rohit Sharma, will be a formidable opponent with Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Manseesh Panday, Ambati Rayudu, Ajinkiya Rahana and MS Dhoni forming a strong batting.
They have spin twins in Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav.
The pace attack will be led by Bhuveneshawar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah while allrounder Hardik Pandya and newcomer Mohammad Khalil will be in support.
India will also be renewing their love-hate relationship with UAE as they are returning to the desert venues after a gap of 12 years.
“Yes, feeling happy to be here after a gap of 12 years,” said Sharma at the launch of the Cup. “We know the focus and what we need to do as a group. We have played some very good one day cricket in the recent past and this is another opportunity to do well before the World Cup.”
India has six of their last seven one-day series.
Pakistan will have an edge of playing most of their cricket in UAE and that is the reason why cricket pundits are considering the green caps as favorite to win this tournament.
Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed warned no team is easy in the Asia Cup.
“It’s a great opportunity for all the teams and we too will work hard to win the event,” said Sarfraz.
Pakistan, winners of the Asia Cup in 2000 and 2012, will be hoping their fast-rising youngsters to repeat their Champions Trophy performance.
“We have a young and a hungry team so we are really excited and will do our best to win the event,” said Sarfraz.
“The Asia Cup is a journey towards the World Cup and in the build-up, we are playing lots of cricket which is good,” he added.
Sri Lanka hopes that their misfiring batting will come well after losing Dinesh Chandimal and Danushka Gunatillake through fitness issues. They are replaced by Niroshan Dickwella and Jehan Jayasuriya.
“It’s an important tournament for all of us,” said Mathews, whose team lost 4-1 to South Africa at home in their lasts series.
Bangladesh will also look to show improvement in the Continental event. Their only final appearance was in 2012 when they lost to Pakistan by two runs at home.
“We have done our homework and are gearing up for the Asia Cup,” said Mortaza, whose allrounder Shakib Al Hasan has regained full fitness after injuring his finger.
The focus will also be on the fast-improving Afghans, who were added as the fifth team by the Asian Cricket Council after they qualified for the World Cup next year.
Hong Kong, who broke local hearts by beating UAE in the final of the qualifying tournament in Malaysia last week, are likely to gain good experience from the event.
“We are hungry to gain experience,” Hong Kong captain Anushman Rath said. “It’s a good opportunity for us to play with top teams after doing well in the qualifying rounds.”