A tournament that can give context to ODIs
Thanks to the unsettlingly quick rise of Twenty20s, the one-day format has increasingly looked like the ugly sister of the cricket family, seemingly possessing neither the glamour and fast-paced action provided by the shortest form, nor the traditional appeal and scope-for-narrative that underpins Test cricket.
Critics also point to the amount of fluff associated with one-day cricket: the game itself has the monotonous middle overs (which Cricket Australia is trying to get rid of with a 40-over two-innings concept at domestic level), while its calendar is packed with soon-forgotten bilateral series and barely-followed triangulars.
The ICC's buzzword for the keeping the five-day game relevant has been 'context', but the one-day format is arguably in more urgent need of a booster shot of context. The Asia Cup, with four Test nations participating, could provide just that if it is nurtured into a credible continental championship.
That isn't going to happen without proper scheduling. The crowds cold-shouldered the previous edition in Pakistan since it was staged in the sapping heat of June and July, not traditional cricket months in the country. This time, the 10th edition, all matches are in the small central Sri Lankan town of Dambulla, and not in the bigger centres like Colombo, at least in part because Dambulla is spared the brunt of the monsoon in June, a month in which Sri Lanka has hosted only one one-day tournament before - the rain-ravaged Singer Akai Nidahas Trophy in 1998.
Also, unlike the quadrennial World Cup, the Asia Cup is an ad-hoc event, sometimes put to bed for four years, and sometimes revived after a two-year gap. The recent five-year television deal with Nimbus should at least ensure a biennial event till 2014.
This year's competition, though, could clearly do with a spot of marketing. The sports fan's gaze and the newspaper columns are already concentrated on the football World Cup in South Africa, and the lack of buzz in the build-up to the Asia Cup is not helping turn their focus to Dambulla. A case in point: No international cricket match spells box-office jackpot as much as an India-Pakistan encounter, especially since the two sides have faced off only once in nearly two years, but hardly anyone seems excited about Saturday's marquee clash.
On the plus side, the tournament has been streamlined and the absence of lightweights like Hong Kong and UAE will reduce the number of mismatches which marred the previous edition. And the organisers will be happy to have got all four major Asian cricketing countries to play, something which has not always happened in the past to a tournament that has long been hostage to the fractious political relations in the region - India refused to play in Sri Lanka in 1985-86 and Pakistan cited safety concerns for withdrawing in 1990-91 in India.
The previous two editions were won by Sri Lanka, who are slight favourites this time as well. They have proven performers at the top of the order, and the likes of Thilina Kandamby and Thilan Samaraweera who aren't big hitters will be under less pressure to manufacture strokes in bowler-friendly Dambulla, where the highest total posted so far is only 289. Add to that their varied spin threats - Muttiah Muralitharan, Suraj Randiv and Rangana Herath - and they should prove difficult to beat.
Their most familiar opponents over the past two years are India, who were champions the first four times they played the tournament but have now gone 15 years without winning it. They have been patchy in one-dayers this year, but have a superb recent record in ODIs in Sri Lanka - winning their previous two bilateral series and a tri-series as well. With the World cup eight months away, India are using the tournament to experiment on their combination, particularly after their bench strength was shown up in the recent series in Zimbabwe.
Pakistan have had their regular cocktail of suspensions and fines, climbdowns and U-turns to turn up with something resembling their full strength team. How Shahid Afridi and coach Waqar Younis will unite a team riven by serious dressing-room trouble remains to be seen. So too the form of fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar, whose career has a zombie-like ability to repeatedly return from the dead.
Rounding out the competition is Bangladesh, who remains the kid brother among the big boys of Asian cricket. They have a couple of world-class players in Tamim Iqbal and captain Shakib Al Hasan, and their phalanx of spinners will prove a handful on the slow Dambulla surface.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo