By Nishad Pai Vaidya
Bangladesh celebrates its cricket team’s ascendancy in unison and braces itself for a shot at history. A week or two ago, any suggestions of the hosts making the Asia Cup final would have been laughed off callously. A lot has been said and written about the brilliance of Bangladesh in this tournament, but one must not forget their fans, who have stood by their team through thick and thin despite years of disappointment and inconsistency. Their huge presence at the Shere Bangla National Stadium is a sight for the sore eyes and tugs the hearts of cricket fans around the world.
As the world continues to embrace T20 cricket - a format that is said to threaten Tests and One- Day Internationals (ODIs) - the crowd response for the Asia Cup comes as a massive encouragement. The Bangladesh victory over India is what triggered this humongous interest and set the tone for the games that followed. For example, the crucial game between India and Pakistan was played in front of a full house - despite it being a working day in the country. The Asian Cricket Council (ACC) would be delighted by the way things have panned out and would be expecting a similar if not a stronger turn-out for the final.
However, despite these encouraging signs, the ACC has to chalk out a strategy to maintain the fanfare of this prestigious tournament in the coming years. A move by the regional body would pay rich dividends not just for cricket in Asia, but also the internationally. It is a well-documented fact that the subcontinent is the powerhouse of the game and the passion for cricket is unparalleled. Assuming that the very sustenance of ODIs is under threat, a strategy to strengthen its fan base is the need of the hour and a competitive tourney like the Asia Cup may be the way forward. The empty stands during the India-England ODI series last year served as a huge warning and it needs to be heeded. Such a scenario would have been unimaginable in India and the alarm bells are loud and clear.
The ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 was met with vociferous zeal and witnessed fantastic success. A lot of it had to do with the success of India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan as the crowds flocked to watch them in action. The fact that the tournament is held once in four years is what bloods in the excitement and eagerness as it approaches. The ACC can create a similar hype for the Asia Cup and it might do well to sustain the current turn-outs (in Bangladesh) or even emulate it. There is no dearth of finances and they can be invested in advertising and other promotional aspects to give the tournament a new look.
Cricket would do well to take a cue from football. Regional tournaments like Copa America (South America) and Euro (Europe), are met with great fervour and enthusiasm. These tournaments may not rank alongside the FIFA World Cup on the popularity metre, but have been successful in creating their own niche and a place in the world of sport. If the ACC consider hosting the Asia Cup every four years, instead of the planned two, they may be able to create the anticipation amongst fans. By hosting the event every two years, it loses its sheen as the winners do not hold on to the prize for long. A longer duration between successive events would raise the stakes and motivate the teams to put in their best.
People may argue that the said tournaments in football generate fan fare mainly due to the numerous competitive teams in the respective continents. However, the emergence of Bangladesh has meant that India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan aren’t the only contenders in Asia. The ongoing Asia Cup has been very competitive with only Lanka failing to live-up to expectations.
The most surprising aspect about the Asia Cup has been its scheduling. In the past, the tournament has been cancelled due to unavailability of teams and tight schedules. The dates for the ongoing Asia Cup were announced in December 2011, hardly three months before the start of the tournament. Instead, if the ACC can work in tandem with the International Cricket Council (ICC), they can negotiate a short window for the competition. It would consume at the most 10-15 days and instead of sandwiching it in between tours, it can be given a proper time frame. The success of the Asia Cup would benefit the ICC’s endeavours of sustaining the 50-over format tremendously and they are aware of the importance of the subcontinental fan base.
A valid window would also push the teams to take this tournament more seriously and avoid picking weakened squads. There may have been an injury scare or two pushing the boards to “rest” those players. Had it been the World Cup, the authorities would have wrapped the player in cotton in the lead up to ensure his availability for the mega event. If the Asia Cup rises through the ranks, superstars of the game would be eager to hone their skills and bring glory to their countries.
Once, the Asia Cup establishes itself as an indispensable part of the international calendar, the inclusion of the weaker sides can be considered. The United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong have featured in two Asia Cups, but didn’t look a part at the international stage. However, a team like Afghanistan may push its case with consistent performances. Their meteoric rise through the ranks has been inspirational and the day they play international cricket on a regular basis may not be far away.
For now, the focus is on Bangladesh and whether or not they would be able to cross the final hurdle. Pakistan are the only team to have beaten them, but would be wary of the challenge considering the fate of India and Sri Lanka. If Bangladesh manages to pull it off, it would be similar to Greece’s triumphant campaign in Euro 2004. However, one would hope that Bangladesh’s rise continues and a victory would herald a prosperous era.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 21-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.")