Improved relations between the governments of India and Pakistan paved the way for the resumption of the Asia Cup in July 2004 after a four-year gap. The 2002 tournament had been a casualty of the animosity between the subcontinental powers but, providing the India-Pakistan rapprochement continued, the Asia Cup was now to be staged every two years. The eighth edition of the one-day jamboree was slotted into a small window in the international calendar and hosted by Sri Lanka, who won the competition for the third time.
As a fund-raising vehicle for the development of Asian cricket, the Asia Cup was a resounding success: some estimates put the price paid by ESPN Star Sports for the broadcasting and sponsorship rights for the 13 matches at a staggering $19m. But as a spectacle, the event struggled. The decision to invite both the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong was an old one - they had qualified in 2000 to play at the 2002 Asia Cup, had it happened - but a flawed one. The participation of these two sides, as well as a weak Bangladesh team, ensured that of the first six games just one, between Sri Lanka and India, was not utterly predictable. A long-winded three-stage format made matters worse. Those six games made up the first stage, whose main purpose was to weed out the two weakest teams, inevitably the UAE and Hong Kong. But because the second phase involved Bangladesh, the mismatches continued. All told, the outcomes of eight of the tournament's 13 games were, to put it politely, wholly foreseeable. The ICC gave all the matches official one-day international status.
The organisers also foresaw a flood of overseas supporters, but tripling normal ticket prices had an effect even more predictable than much of the cricket - and the anticipated rush did not happen until the final. Then Colombo's first-class hotels and restaurants bulged to the seams with visiting Indians, and prices were too expensive for many locals. The result was that most of the matches were played out in front of depressingly empty stands. However, local disenchantment with the ticketing was assuaged by the performance of a rejuvenated Sri Lanka. Despite only 90 or so hours to travel from Cairns to Dambulla, switch from five-day to one-day mode, and fight off a flu virus that swept through a tired squad, Sri Lanka still dominated the competition. They deservedly won the final against India, the pretournament favourites, thanks to an electric bowling and fielding performance.
Sri Lanka welcomed back Muttiah Muralitharan, who had opted out of the Australia tour after the controversy surrounding his doosra, but their success was built on an all-round team effort. Nuwan Zoysa was a revelation with the new ball, winning two match awards and playing an important role in the final, as did the leg-spinner Upul Chandana. All the batsmen chipped in, including Sanath Jayasuriya, who ended a lean one-day run with back-to-back hundreds, while at times the fielding, particularly the catching, was brilliant.
After a three-month break, India's return to international cricket proved disappointing. They were hampered by injuries to Zaheer Khan (hamstring) and V. V. S. Laxman (bruised knee), and the absence of specialist batting back-up in the squad unbalanced the team. Although Irfan Pathan was the most successful bowler in the competition, with 14 wickets - Sachin Tendulkar came next with 12 - their fast bowlers were often wayward. Their star-studded batting line-up coughed and spluttered through the games, struggling most when chasing, never easy in the day/night matches as the new ball zipped around after dark.
Pakistan, playing their first tournament with Bob Woolmer as coach, unsurprisingly breezed past Hong Kong and Bangladesh in the first phase. But in the second they found Sri Lanka a different proposition and were skittled out for just 122 - their lowest in 100 meetings. Pakistan bounced back in the India game, winning convincingly thanks to a magnificent 143 from Shoaib Malik, the tournament's highest run-scorer. But crucially, it was not quite convincing enough: India's ninth-wicket pair filched a bye off the last ball, and with it a bonus point. Had they not, Pakistan would almost certainly have reached the final.
Improved performances earlier in the year against Zimbabwe and West Indies should have given Bangladesh a fillip. Arriving early for extra time to acclimatise was sensible, and Dav Whatmore's intimate knowledge of conditions after six years coaching Sri Lanka should also have helped. However, they were hindered by an injury to their opener, Javed Omar, their only batsman to make an impression. Morale also suffered when, after two encouraging performances, the left-arm spinner Abdur Razzaq was reported for a suspect action. In the end, what self-belief they had dripped away, and they left with a meaningless victory over Hong Kong and not much else.
Hong Kong's first appearances in one-day international cricket produced two unsurprisingly heavy defeats, but the UAE's disciplined and spirited performance against India and Sri Lanka - they lost to both by a margin of 116 runs - was an eye-opener. A 25-day training camp before the tournament paid dividends and, having already won the 2004 Asian Cricket Council Trophy, the UAE, along with the hosts, were perhaps the only sides to make gains in this tournament.
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