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Feature

Temperatures rise as Asia's finest gear up for their biggest pre-World Cup test

The heat of the UAE has mirrored the intensity of the teams, who all have one eye on Australia in October-November

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
26-Aug-2022
Babar Azam practises in the nets ahead of the Asia Cup  •  AFP/Getty Images

Babar Azam practises in the nets ahead of the Asia Cup  •  AFP/Getty Images

"If anyone asks how you are, the coach suggested we say, 'well done', because the weather here is like that."
Speaking ahead of the start of the Asia Cup, Bhanuka Rajapaksa made an entire room laugh by likening the experience of Dubai's oppressive heat to that of meat on a grill. Daytime temperatures have touched 46 degrees Celsius, leaving teams needing to find a balance between going full-tilt and conserving energy.
India have trained in the late evening, Sri Lanka have preferred the afternoon heat to acclimatise better, and Bangladesh have gone on into the middle of the night, while Pakistan and Afghanistan have mixed and matched. Hong Kong have already played a week's cricket in the qualifiers in similar conditions across the border in Oman.
In the end, nothing can really prepare you for the gust of hot air hitting your face while running in against the wind, as bowlers have found out frequently at training in the open setting of the ICC Academy grounds.
India have given their fast bowlers shorter and sharper stints, a luxury Sri Lanka haven't had since none of their frontline fast bowlers have played T20Is; they have had little choice but to go all-out. Pakistan have held back, seemingly mindful of the injuries that have hit their camp, choosing to instead use local net bowlers to test their batters.
The local liaison team have been at their busiest, arranging for kilograms of ice to be made available, sometimes at short notice, to help players recover post-training. The change rooms offer the cushiest seats and the best air conditioning, but it's the ice bath that the players have tended to make a beeline for.
The teams have also been able to mingle among themselves, exchanging banter and laughs - a constant feature over the past three days. Babar Azam and Virat Kohli have exchanged pleasantries, KL Rahul and Shaheen Afridi have enquired about each other's injuries, and Rajapaksa has caught up with his Punjab Kings team-mate Arshdeep Singh.
But the fun and games have all been restricted to the sidelines. In the middle, the intensity has been cranked up several notches. This is the last chance for some of these teams to test their big-match temperament under pressure before the World Cup in Australia in October-November.
India are missing their pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah, who is recovering from injury. This gives Arshdeep Singh and Avesh Khan an opportunity to vie for spots in the World Cup party. Pakistan will have to make do without Afridi, while Sri Lanka will want each of their uncapped fast bowlers to gain some exposure.
Bangladesh's challenge under a new coach and a returning Shakib Al Hasan, who takes over the captaincy, will be to return to winning ways in their least favourite format - they've lost 23 of their 35 T20Is since the start of 2021, and they're coming off a series loss in Zimbabwe.
While India and Pakistan may seemingly have it easy in Group A, with Hong Kong as the third team, they will be wary of taking them lightly. At the previous edition in 2018, Hong Kong came genuinely close to beating India. In Group B, one slip-up could be the difference between having potentially four more games to play and an early flight home for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
In many ways, the Asia Cup is a microcosm of the elite cricket world. The tournament changes its identity frequently, to suit the needs of the participating teams. It does much for the "smaller" nations of the Asian bloc - in terms of finances - without actually giving them adequate exposure.
For example: between the previous edition in 2018 and this one, in 2022, Hong Kong have played a grand sum of zero matches against the Asian Full Members. Hong Kong, mind you, are among the 'elite' Associates. Oman, Kuwait, Singapore and even Nepal, who've had to grapple with multiple issues including an an ICC suspension, have it much worse. But this, perhaps, is a debate for another day.
The first four days on tour for all the teams have set the scene nicely. Sri Lanka open against Afghanistan on Saturday, and the hubbub will increase noticeably when India and Pakistan square off on Sunday. It could be the prelude to potentially two more meetings. At least the broadcasters and fans will hope so.
The A-listers in Kohli and Babar have set tongues wagging without even facing a ball. They're at opposite ends of the form spectrum, but anything they do - and don't do - is amplified.
For all the criticism over the lack of opportunities it provides the smaller teams, the Asia Cup has established itself as a tournament that gives viewers plenty. Games come thick and fast - perhaps not so ideal in searing August heat in the UAE - and high-octane content is guaranteed.
Kohli could put an end to talk of bad form, or raise the volume of the debates. Shakib could make a statement on the field without worrying about who he shouldn't be endorsing. Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman could boot Sri Lanka out of their own party - technically they're still hosts, remember.
The fringe players are all potentially one big performance away from putting themselves on the radar for World Cup selection. Imagine if Mohammad Hasnain, Afridi's replacement, dismisses Rohit Sharma. Or if Arshdeep nails five yorkers in the final over to defend 10 runs. Or Rahmanullah Gurbaz brings his T10 magic to the 20-overs format.
The cricket promises to be high-quality. Heat or no heat, the interest surrounding the competition has picked up significantly. Without bio-bubbles restricting their movements, the teams have mingled freely with teeming fans who've gathered outside their training venues. All of it feels so familiar, yet so different. The next two weeks could just be a teaser for the blockbuster that is to come two months down the line.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo