Order meets chaos
As the five-time Asia Cup champions Sri Lanka are set to battle it out against two-time winners Pakistan in the final of the continental tournament's 15th edition in Dubai tonight at 8:00pm Bangladesh Standard Time, the task of picking the favourites on paper becomes virtually impossible.
Even though the island nation possess the mental edge, having edged past the men in green in the final's dress rehearsal on Friday, the Dasun-Shanaka led side will still have to keep their tactical clarity -- as demonstrated throughout their journey in the event up until now -- intact against a historically unpredictable team, filled with match-winners who have the tendency to thrive under chaos, led by Babar Azam and Co this time.
The hosts Sri Lanka have managed to commendably restore order, across all departments, following their defeat against Afghanistan in their tournament opener. On the other hand, Pakistan's batting upfront left a lot to be desired, especially considering the strike-rates of Babar (110.5), Fakhar Zaman (104.3) and Mohammad Rizwan (118.9) -- even though the wicketkeeper-batter happens to be the second-highest run-getter in the event so far with 226 runs -- are not anywhere close to what Sri Lanka opener Kusal Mendis generated, an impressive 158.2 from scoring 155 runs in five innings.
The Lankans also have fared comparatively better as far as the middle-order batting is concerned, with skipper Shanaka and Bhanuka Rajapaksa in top-notch form. Bangladesh in the group stage and India, Afghanistan in the Super Four round learned, in the hard way, a lesson or two regarding the art of mixing caution with aggression while chasing a challenging total.
Looking decades back, Sri Lanka openers Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana had revolutionised the craft of maximising field restrictions during the mid-late 90s, and the current batch is apparently taking the road somewhat less traversed by in the T20 format, where a team can choose to not go all guns blazing from the start and instead focus more on methodically pacing the innings.
Meanwhile, Pakistanis have compensated their firepower upfront with explosive batting from the lower-middle order – the likes of Asif Ali and Mohammad Nawaz showcasing the power to rain sixes from the word go, and even a tail-ender in Naseem Shah had conjured the ability to pack a few deadly punches when he stunned everyone by rescuing his side from the jaws of defeat, with back-to-back sixes in the last over against the Afghans.
Bowling-wise, this department contributes to the overall odds arriving somewhat near balance and would certainly hit 50-50, or in Pakistan's favour, if Sri Lanka don't get the chance to chase. Moreover, Pakistan, given the self-belief their bowlers inherit from the legacy of their predecessors, cannot count themselves out from a game even if they are defending a below-par total or even if their opponents have one foot inside the finish line, something Sri Lanka supporters in the late 90s would know.
What happened in the Sharjah ODI in 1999 still lives in the memory of many cricket fans who saw how Sri Lanka -- needing only 24 runs off 60 deliveries with eight wickets in hand, and that too with Aravinda de Silva and Russel Arnold well set in the middle -- had experienced complete pandemonium to tie the match after Wasim Akram and player-of-the-match Abdur Razzaq combined to decimate the Lankan batting order.
Tonight, Sri Lanka's Wanindu Hasaranga and Pakistan's Shadab Khan can be predicted to successfully operate in the respective sides' spin department. On the quick-bowling front, Pakistan have got the X factor, no doubt, like they typically do, with Naseem, Haris Rauf, Mohammad Hasnain in their ranks. However, the difference is marginal since their Lanka counterparts -- featuring Dilshan Madushanka, Maheesh Theekshana and Co -- have been no less than effective.
Ultimately, given how the tournament kept churning out last-over dramatic finishes one after another, the outcome of the finale could likely boil down to whoever can hold their nerves and display courage once the pressure-cooker whistle blows near inaudible range during the marquee event's climax.
The stage is set, with all the ambiance fine-tuned to host a potential classic. The Pakistani and Sri Lankan fans would either experience jubilation or heartbreaks as the two sets of fans, who are way too emotionally invested by now, would not be willing to settle for anything else other than seeing their beloved team clinch the trophy and the bragging rights that comes along. The neutrals, though, can prepare to keep ample popcorn in store as the 2022 Asia Cup's grand finale has all the necessary ingredients to end up becoming a spectacle, one for the ages.