1. Sri Lanka 2. India 3= Bangladesh and Pakistan
Just about the most exciting piece of cricket in the Asia Cup came at its very end. An announcement was made, an introduction, by one man to the rest of the world. Ajantha Mendis had previously been spotted only in a low-key one-day series in the Caribbean, arousing mild curiosity, mostly because of an odd grip which allowed him to bowl leg-breaks, offies and top-spinners with equal mystery. But Mendis's eight overs in the final here against India made him, suddenly, the spinner to watch. India's batsmen - those eulogised slayers of spin - didn't know what had hit them, collapsing from a boisterous 76 for one in the tenth over, when Mendis was introduced, to a measly 173 all out. The 100-run triumph brought Sri Lanka their fourth Asia Cup crown.
Mendis's grip is unique among contemporaries and historically rare; only the Australians Jack Iverson and John Gleeson have had any degree of success internationally with anything like it. Karachi was an apt location, as "finger" bowlers, with a similar grip to that of Mendis, have long thrived on the local taped-tennis-ball circuit. Three top-order victims were beaten not so much by turn as by the prospect of it, which is another kind of deception altogether. The other three saw spin, though were never sure of its destination. Anil Kumble would have been proud of the trajectory and impeccable length. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India's captain, later spoke of Mendis as some unfathomable being, repeatedly saying his men had no clue.
Mahela Jayawardene's decision not to expose Mendis to the Indians in an earlier game suddenly looked, in hindsight, a masterstroke. As that game held no meaning for the Sri Lankans, in the middle of a schedule as tightly packed as a tin of sardines, it was common sense. Mendis would not have that luxury any longer: as the laptops started analysing, and the mystery/ novelty started to wear off, his real challenge began. But if his subsequent success in a home Test series against India less than a month later was any indication, he was well equipped.
The triumph was important for his team as well. Sri Lanka arrived after a horror run of only eight wins (three of them against Bangladesh) in 22 one-day internationals since the 2007 World Cup final. But they ended up as comfortably the best team in the tournament, and possessed the leading wicket-taker (Mendis, with 17 at 8.52 apiece), the leading century-maker (Kumar Sangakkara, with three) and the leading run-scorer (Sanath Jayasuriya, 378). Selected only after ministerial intervention - and some fireworks in the IPL - Jayasuriya furthered his legend, never more so than when it mattered. From 66 for four in the final, only Jayasuriya could have contemplated a 79-ball century as an appropriate response. And only as unique a performance as Mendis's later on could have eclipsed his 125.
The rest of the tournament was not as memorable, though that is not to say it was completely insignificant. India always looked as if fatigue would get the better of them, while Pakistan added blandness to inconsistency. Worryingly, the only time they looked competent was without their captain, Shoaib Malik, in the win over India.
The schedule and format didn't help. It was unnecessarily long and convoluted, which was more trying still in the midsummer heat of Karachi and Lahore. The pitches made the old Antigua turf look fiery and, until the final, 300 was a disappointing total.
Overall, little justice was done to the fact that this tournament celebrated the 25th year of the Asian Cricket Council. That there had been only eight previous editions of the Asia Cup bears testimony to a haphazard, fitful organisation. Both India and Pakistan have pulled out, and the tournament has once been cancelled altogether, reflecting some troublesome geo-politics.
Remarkably, this was the first time it had been held in Pakistan, the country which gave birth to the original idea of an Asian alliance. An Asian Cricket Conference was first held in Pakistan in the mid-1970s, the brainchild of Abdul Hafeez Kardar, and a one-day tournament was mooted - although, typically, it couldn't be organised.
But the significance of this Asia Cup was twofold. For a start, 50-over internationals had to prove themselves relevant again, coming as they did immediately after the onslaught of the 20-over IPL. The massacres of Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh did nothing but knot the noose around the format's neck. Even the contests between the big three countries lacked their usual fizz. Neither did fans flock to it, though the heat and equally oppressive security played a part in that. But, some asked, would Twenty20 cricket ever provide the depth for Jayasuriya's counter-attack, or the broad canvas on which Mendis produced his work?
None of this mattered much to the Pakistan board. This was the first highprofile event they had hosted in many years. They saw it as a dress rehearsal for the Champions Trophy, which was slated for Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi in September 2008. But even this glitch-free, security-intense Asia Cup did not manage to convince any of the non-Asian nations to visit Pakistan for the Champions Trophy, and after typical ICC dithering, it was eventually postponed for a year, although the prospect of it taking place in Pakistan in 2009 seemed remote.
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