In any other major subcontinental sport, the Asian championships are a significant event. Example: India and Pakistan's consequence for not winning the Asian Games Hockey gold in Indonesia last month is having to go through a rigorous qualifying process for the 2020 Olympics.
The AFC Cup is the second oldest football championship after Copa America. It gives all the sides exposure amidst a crowded club football calendar to prepare themselves for the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Similarly, in Davis Cup tennis, teams from Asia and Oceania compete against each other to advance to the upper tier. While the winner advances to the World group playoffs, the losing teams compete in the relegation playoffs.
With cricket, however, you have to scratch your head for a bit to understand what's at stake from both contextual and prestige point of view. What does being Asian champions mean? Bangladesh were runners-up at the Asia Cup T20 at home in 2016, but they still had to qualify for the World T20, held in India exactly a month later, playing against teams like Oman, Afghanistan, Nepal and Hong Kong, who for long have been made to feel unwanted.
In the past, the Associates were largely being pencilled in as an afterthought. Invariably, two games and three days into the tournament, they'd pack their bags to take the next flight home. It was only in 2004 - after seven editions of the tournament had already taken place - that the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) actually agreed to let teams like UAE and Hong Kong play. They featured in the subsequent edition in 2008 as well, but gained little in the way of exposure and were eventually shown the door in 2010, when the Asia Cup reverted to being a competition between the four subcontinental giants.
In 2014, Afghanistan forced their way in, rising from division five of the World Cricket League to become an Associate member of the ICC. Their subsequent ODI status reaffirmed the need to induct emerging teams and give them exposure. Things looked up for the new boys, but at the take-off point was another roadblock, with the ACC - operating with just two staff members at one point in 2015 - undergoing massive restructuring.
Why should you watch the Asia Cup?
It is one of the three tournaments where India take on Pakistan
Things aren't entirely back on track, but the ACC is hoping for a revival here in the UAE, after the tournament was shifted out of India earlier this year. The organisers are banking on the 2019 World Cup adding a delicious subplot to the current edition, which has also been structured into resembling a mini India-Pakistan bilateral series. Both sides could play each other up to three times should they make the final, a rarity after what once had the much-maligned India-Sri Lanka ring to the rivalry during the course of a four-year period from 2004 to 2007.
India toured Pakistan in 2004 and 2006, with Pakistan returning the favour in 2005 and 2007. In between, they missed each other so much that a two-match series - their first in UAE since the 2000 tri-series - was played in Abu Dhabi. During this period, both sides were so familiar with the other that the normal needle from an India-Pakistan context was replaced with talk of friendship and camaraderie. The dynamics have changed since 2008. Political tensions in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks now mean they face each other only in ICC tournaments and Asia Cups.
Last year's Champions Trophy final tickets were lapped up within seven minutes of going on sale. The tickets for the 2019 World Cup clash between the two sides were lapped up 14 months in advance. How about a taste of India-Pakistan in the UAE this time around? No chance. All tickets for the clash on September 19, barring corporate hospitality, priced upwards of 6000 AED (USD 1600 approx) have been sold out. Therefore, from a fan point of view, this is viewed as a series within a series, without meaning any disrespect to the other teams.
That doesn't take away what each of the other sides have at stake. Afghanistan have an opportunity to cause another stir to those they already have over the last two years. Their dramatic entry to the World Cup earlier this year has added an edge to the outfit that can now compete against any of the top sides in the subcontinent. Hong Kong have come through a qualifying process, beating the likes of Oman, Nepal and UAE along the way. Bangladesh are the rising force, fresh out of a limited-overs series win in West Indies but plenty to answer in terms of form and fitness of key players. Sri Lanka are grappling form and injuries to key players, and want to turn around their fortunes after a thrashing from South Africa at home. India are fatigued after a long English summer, and want to ring in a few wins under stand-in captain Rohit Sharma.
On the face of it, the tournament will sleepwalk its way for the first week - it's for Hong Kong to prove that won't be the case - before the Super Four stage, which could throw up a few surprises. But the pertinent question remains: can the Asia Cup, a chameleon that changes format for context, continue to remain relevant and provide opportunities for the smaller teams? Can the bigger sides engage their younger cousins to give them exposure? The next two weeks could give us a few answers.