Asia Cup 2023: Is a fixed neutral venue the only answer?

The tournament, fighting to stay relevant, had always been a hostage in the war of egos between India and Pakistan boards and their government policies

Asia Cup 2018: India vs Pakistan (photo: Getty Images)
Asia Cup 2018: India vs Pakistan (photo: Getty Images)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The flipflop over the Asia Cup 2023 is finally over as the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), the official hosts for this edition, announced the schedule on Wednesday. In what will be a ‘first’ in the chequered history of the tournament, two countries – Pakistan and Sri Lanka will be hosting it in a hybrid model – and that’s where the irony lies.

Can you think of any precedent where the host country hosts less than half the total number of matches at stake, and not the final? Yet, this is what is on the cards with Pakistan hosting only four of the 12 matches in two venues (Multan and Lahore) while Sri Lanka will stage the other eight, including the final, in Kandy and Colombo.

Now, there are no prizes for guessing that with no more bi-lateral series in any format between India and Pakistan, the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) – much like the world governing body International Cricket Council (ICC) – would try to milk the India-Pakistan fixture to garner the eyeballs. The fixtures of the 2023 edition is also devised in such a manner that at least two clashes between the arch rivals are guaranteed (one a group game and the other one being in the Super Four stage) and a possible third one in the final.

Nothing wrong with it, though it’s anybody’s guess if the league match between India and Pakistan at the Pallekele Stadium of Kandy on September 2 is the right setting for an explosive contest like this. A Super Four clash between the two which is almost certain to take place (unless Nepal, the third team in their group, pull off a miracle), is due in Colombo on September 10. They may again meet in the final four days later at the Sri Lankan capital, which has predictions of heavy rain in the second week of September.

It’s certainly not the best advertisement for a tournament – which has historically been subjected to the political tug-o-war between India and Pakistan – with things coming to a pass this time with Pakistan’s participation in the upcoming ICC World Cup hitched to it. The hybrid model, which the PCB agreed to after much dithering, can be described as the best of a bad bargain to save the edition.

The UAE, which hosted the last two editions (2018 & 2022) as it had turned out to be an automatic choice as a neutral venue where both India and Pakistan could play - was ready to pitch in this time as well. However, Pakistan were not keen to let go off the opportunity of hosting matches physically – something which they had done 15 years back.

While it’s a rotational process to select the hosts, the 2018 edition which had India as hosts had to be moved to the UAE (as Pakistan were not ready to play in India) while the 2022 edition, with Lanka as hosts, could not be staged there due to the fomenting political unrest.

A practical solution, to avoid the flip flop among the host countries and ensure a stability about the venue, could be to make the UAE as the permanent hosts. Just ponder this – the five main members of the Asian body has a huge representation among the disapora in Dubai, Sharjah or Abu Dhabi – and one can speak from experience that the marquee India-Pakistan matches create an electric atmosphere there.

The UAE had failed to qualify for the continental event last year, but the ACC headquarters are actually located inside the ICC portals in Dubai. The extreme climate in the UAE around September-October is often held as a factor which goes against them and alternate window may be a tough one to find with the choc-a-bloc international calendar, but it will at least put an end to the regular drama which precedes every Asia Cup.

If not, the Asia Cup will continue to remain a hostage to the egos of India and Pakistan cricket boards and their government policies!

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