Late bloomer's masterclass
After Otto Rehhagel's Greeks came bearing gifts - and left with the biggest prize - at Euro 2004, cricket's minnows might have gone into the Asia Cup nursing similar visions of grandeur. But cricket is an unforgiving sport, where one swallow doesn't ever a summer make. To win a game, you have to be the superior side on the day, no matter what the gulf in class might be. The United Arab Emirates found that out the hard way, despite showing unmistakable signs that the so-called lesser nations deserve more exposure at this level.
They certainly didn't start like knee-trembling newcomers, giving India's illustrious top three a thorough working-over in the opening stages. There was enough atmospheric assistance, especially from the wind blowing across Kandalama Lake, and both Ali Asad and Asim Saeed proved that even the world's greatest batsmen can look like nervous novices when faced with the swinging ball pitched on a perfect line and length.
But where the Indian team of years gone by might have lost their nerve along with a couple of quick wickets, the modern-day version comes equipped with a special aptitude for the crisis, perhaps dating back to the history-altering victory at Kolkata in March 2001. They also have Rahul Dravid, whose presence at the crease during a batting wobble is as reassuring as a cup of cocoa and a blanket on a wet and stormy night.
Just over two and a half years ago, in a conversation with Wisden Asia Cricket, Dravid was disarmingly honest when it came to assessing his deficiencies in the one-day game. He admitted that he had found it a struggle to play the ball into the gaps with soft hands, and that rotating the strike became an ordeal because of it. Since then, though, the moth has departed the chrysalis and become just about the most attractive butterfly around.
He still bats without any noticeable flourish, but along with the solidity that he has always epitomised is an up-tempo approach that can quickly demoralise a bowling side. No matter who is in opposition, he constructs his innings in the same meticulous manner, running hard between the wickets and finding the boundary rope with astute placement rather than brute force. Usually, centuries compiled at quicker than a run a ball are frenetic affairs, but Dravid's effort today reached its crescendo with the smoothness of a mellow jazz composition.
Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag hog the headlines at the top of the order, and with the more flamboyant Yuvraj Singh providing the big-hitting late on, it's easy to overlook the fact that Dravid, the man who was supposedly a misfit in one-day cricket, now averages over 40 at it - comfortably in the all-time great category.
For the UAE, this was both an occasion to remember, and a harsh reality check. They can be proud of the manner in which they bowled, but with the bat, they were exposed for what they were, a group of talented subcontinental expats who weren't quite good enough to make the grade in their respective homelands. Once Irfan Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji worked the rust off their bowling shoulders, the match threatened to degenerate into an unsavoury rout, until Mohammad Tauqir's gritty fifty ensured that the lesser lights would leave the stage with the reservoir of pride still full.
To take a hoity-toity approach and suggest that teams like the UAE don't belong at this level is the worst disservice that we could do to the game. As the bull-necked Asad and the enthusiastic Saeed - who pocketed a cool US$1,000 for dismissing Tendulkar - showed, a combination of skill, determination and helpful conditions can often make for an engrossing hour or two. But unlike in football, such bursts of sunshine don't win you matches.