There is a special place for the Asia Cup in Bangladeshi hearts because growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, it was the tournament that served as the backdrop for the India-Pakistan rivalry, set the stage for the emergence of Sri Lanka and, more relevantly, provided a venue for Bangladesh to start rubbing shoulders with the big boys on a regular basis.
Bangladesh opener Tamim Iqbal, battling his way back from a finger injury to be fit in time for tomorrow's tournament opener against Sri Lanka in Dubai, pointed to another reason for the regional tournament's importance -- that epochal edition in Dhaka in 2012 when Bangladesh went from also-rans to almost-champions, losing by two runs against Pakistan in a final that ended in tears on the pitch and in the stands.
“Everyone may think about the 2012 Asia Cup final, but I see it a little differently,” Tamim told reporters yesterday afternoon sitting in a restaurant of the team hotel. “People talk about the 2015 World Cup [where Bangladesh reached the quarterfinal] as the tournament where a new Bangladesh emerged, but the 2012 Asia Cup was the tournament where we first got the belief that we could beat any team -- that we could be competitive.
“I remember that; not my four fifties or how we lost the final by two runs. I remember how we played as a team and beat teams that no one would have thought we could beat. We beat India and Sri Lanka, and lost two very competitive matches against Pakistan. It was a special tournament for me.”
Four years later, in the Twenty20 edition in Dhaka, they did a repeat, beating Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the group stages and losing to India in the final.
It is therefore no surprise that because of the importance of the Asia Cup in the participating nations, Bangladesh's status as last edition's runners-up and their good performances in recent times, expectations are sky high.
But like skipper Mashrafe Bin Mortaza before leaving Dhaka, Tamim refused to look beyond the first round, particularly tomorrow's clash against Sri Lanka.
“We are focused on the first two matches, both of which we have to win. If we lose one and win one, there will still be a question mark,” Tamim said. “The game on the [September] 15th is especially important for us. Many things will fall into place if we start the tournament with a win -- what we are doing right and what we need to improve on.”
The marquee rivalry may be India versus Pakistan but with the heightening of passions between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka players in the Nidahas Trophy in March -- and also the fact that former Bangladesh coach Chandika Hathurusingha is now in charge of Sri Lanka after a not uncontroversial jumping of ship -- there seems to be a new rivalry forming in Asia.
“When we see each other, like we met them yesterday, we have a friendly relationship. Every team should have one or two rivalries. I don't think either team has the Nidahas Trophy incident in mind. Regardless of the history, both sides know how important the September 15 game is.”
Team manager Khaled Mahmud, a former captain who apart from winning a 1999 World Cup stunner against Pakistan waged a few futile battles against the big subcontinent teams in the 1990s and the early 2000s, served as a bridge between the generations of also-rans and almost-champions. He still calls India and Pakistan 'giants' and sets them ahead of Bangladesh, but also believes that there is enough in this Bangladesh team to do something special this time.
“The team we have now is experienced because of the five senior players, but it's important for us to have the young members contribute. We have a good chance if we can play as a team.
“Of course the Asia Cup is important -- the team that wins gets to call themselves the best Asian team for two years.”
By that logic, Bangladesh have been the second best Asian team for four of the last six years. It is now time to see if they can go a step further and the first step will fittingly be against a team with whom they have had heated battles in the recent past.