An absorbing tournament with few watchers
When a major tournament involving the continent's four Test playing nations is held entirely in a small town, you'd expect the place to be buzzing with excitement. During the league phase of the Asia Cup, though, barring the jacked-up security presence and hotel rates, Dambulla barely acknowledged its existence. There was no sense of anticipation regarding the matches, no billboards or posters advertising that the tournament was on, and until you got within sight of the stadium, you didn't even see any flags or face-painted fans.
The buzz was palpable only on the day of the finals, when fans poured in to cheer the favourites, only to be disappointed by an Indian side that capitalised on the ample assistance the pitch provided under lights to topple Sri Lanka.
Though the fans might not have been whipped into a frenzy, the Asia Cup had some high-quality contests except for the matches involving Bangladesh, who were handed ritual thrashings by the rest. While many worry about the future of the ODI, a couple of riveting games involving Pakistan - the tournament opener against Sri Lanka and the clash against India - showcased the strengths of the 50-over game over the Twenty20 format: the many chances to get back in a game, and extended hostile spells of bowling (Mohammad Aamer and Shoaib Akhtar at the start of the Indian innings.)
In the end, the title triumph added to MS Dhoni's already impressive list of captaincy achievements in all formats: the World Twenty20 in 2007, the CB series in 2008, and overseeing the final phase in the rise to the No. 1 ranking in Tests.
However, in a tournament portrayed as the start of the build-up to the World Cup, not many questions over India's team composition were answered over the past two weeks in Dambulla. While five senior batsmen are likely starters in the one-day side, none of the youngsters performed well enough to firm up their places, and none of them were poor enough over this tournament and the Zimbabwe series to be dismissed from the race for a middle-order berth. The bowling line-up more or less picks itself and there was no change in that status quo over the Asia Cup.
Sri Lanka, too, hardly gleaned any pointers towards their 2011 preparations. The lower-middle order is a problem area for them and none of Thilina Kandamby, Thilan Samaraweera and Chamara Kapugedera did enough to settle the tussle for the No. 6 and 7 spots. Also, Farveez Maharoof was recalled as a bowling allrounder, but it remains to be seen whether his blow-hot-blow-cold efforts merit a long run at No. 8.
Pakistan may not have made the finals, but the tournament wasn't a write-off for them. Given the shenanigans over the past year, any competition that goes off without murmurs of infighting and on-field controversy should be deemed a success. Then there was Shoaib Akhtar, yet to reach fitness levels necessary for punishing spells of international cricket, showing he can still crank up the pace and rub opponents the wrong way. The biggest bonus was the batting of their captain Shahid Afridi, who combined judicious stroke-selection while retaining the panache of old.
The most disappointing of the lot was Bangladesh, who repeated the old 'we're improving' mantra before sinking without resistance in all their matches. They at least had Alok Kapali's blistering 115 against India to console themselves two years ago, but this time there weren't even any standout individual performances - with bat or ball - to cling on to.
Another letdown was the low-intensity of the floodlights at the stadium. There were plenty of complaints from batsmen and fielders about sighting the ball under lights and that, allied to the increased help for bowlers in the evening, made it an almost entirely a win-toss-and-bat tournament. The helter-skelter scheduling also raised questions, with no match on Sunday and the final being held on a Thursday, though the day after was a holiday.
This was the 10th edition of the Asia Cup, but the organisers showed little interest in building a sense of history around the tournament. Unless they manage to evoke that in both fans and players, the Asia Cup will remain an unexceptional one-day tournament, failing to excite people even in the small town, where it was supposed to be the sporting highlight of the year.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo