It is a tournament Pakistan love, and yet a tournament that hasn’t always loved them back. Pakistan’s curious lack of success over this competition’s four-decade history has always baffled and puzzled, given, if history is a guide, there are only three possible ultimate destinations for this trophy. For the first half of this tournament’s existence, India and Sri Lanka played musical chairs, the trophy changing hands between a stirring giants of world cricket and a rising force of Asian cricket. Pakistan, meanwhile, were kept out in the cold, only making one of the first six finals.
It’s not been a side that’s necessarily looked destined for glory this fortnight, beginning with a final-over defeat to arch-rivals India. But inflicting a loss on that same opponent a week later invigorated a flagging campaign, though stumbles against Afghanistan suggest a side with work to do. That might particularly be true with bat in hand, but for this young side, also when it comes to maintaining emotional control; there was evidence in that game against Afghanistan that nerves, and perhaps tempers, threatened to get the better of that at seminal moments.
Tempers are less likely to flare in the final, though. Each Asia Cup side has had a complicated relationship with the others, but with Pakistan and Sri Lanka perhaps the friendliest fixture of all. Across most of their history, these two nations have enjoyed immensely cordial relations with the other, and been there for each other in their toughest times, the sight of cheering Lahoris as Arjuna Ranatunga lifted the World Cup at the Gaddafi stadium one of cricket’s indelible images. That warmth has been evident on the field, and there is no reason that should change.
But ever since, their campaign has turned around. The batters, right through to the lower order, finds itself playing modern, aggressive, and above all entertaining cricket that has lit up this tournament, gaining them fans outside that little paradise of an island itself. Afghanistan were swiftly avenged, before a thrilling win in the game of the tournament against India effectively saw them through to the final. It was especially impressive because of how well this tournament’s official hosts held their nerve at the death, trumping an opposition that had beaten them in 14 of the last 17 T20Is.
The win against Pakistan perhaps means they go into the final as favourites, but of course, not mentioning the value of the toss would be irresponsible. Only three times has a team defended successfully – Hong Kong’s two opponents and India against Afghanistan – and while there have been plenty of close games to suggest it needn’t have been that way, the value of calling correctly cannot be overstated.
Pakistan: LWWWL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: WWWWL
In the spotlight
Whether you’re Team Total Attack or Team Platform Building, Pakistan’s T20 fortunes are tethered firmly to the kind of day Mohammad Rizwan is having. He might take his time and hold up an end, which gives the rest of the side something of a comfort blanket – that only becomes really apparent in how exposed the side feels when he falls early. Even better for Pakistan, he could find his timing from relatively early on and get Pakistan ticking early, off to a rapid – if not flying – start. A struggling Rizwan often means a struggling Pakistan, not just because his runs might be missed, but because Rizwan in the right mood manages to lift the spirit of the entire Pakistan side. He has become this T20I side’s heartbeat, as well as the bellwether of its performances.
Wanindu Hasaranga doesn’t mind playing against Pakistan. The 3-21 he managed in the dry run for the final wasn’t a one-off. Quite literally, in the sense he also registered those precise numbers in a T20I in Lahore that saw Sri Lanka clean sweep Pakistan 3-0. It was really that tour of Pakistan that kickstarted his career, one where he hasn’t looked back since. But Pakistan remain, statistically, his most favoured opponents, against whom he has bagged 11 wickets in four matches. These include a player of the series award as well as two player of the match performances. Add to that his ability to contribute runs down the order, and it becomes clear why his battle against Pakistan might be key to the destination of the Asia Cup.
Pitch and conditions
It will be hot and dry again, as it has been all fortnight.
After resting a few players for the group game against Sri Lanka, Pakistan should revert to the side that won three in a row prior to Friday’s defeat.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Babar Azam (capt) 2 Mohammad Rizwan (wk) 3 Fakhar Zaman 4 Iftikhar Ahmed 5 Khushdil Shah 6 Shadab Khan 7 Asif Ali 8 Mohammad Nawaz 9 Naseem Shah 10 Haris Rauf 11 Mohammad Hasnain.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Kusal Mendis (wk), 2 Pathum Nissanka, 3 Dhananjaya de Silva, 4 Danushka Gunathilaka, 5 Dasun Shanaka (capt,), 6 Bhanuka Rajapaksa, 7 Chamika Karunaratne, 8 Wanindu Hasaranga, 9 Maheesh Theekshana, 10 Pramod Madushan, 11 Dilshan Madushanka.
Stats and trivia
“When building a team, it is great for us that different players have stood up when it counts and helped the team win matches. As a captain this is important for me, and it helps pave the path for future success for the team as well.”Babar Azam relishes the all-round contributions from his side this competition
“As a tournament looking back, this has been one of the best Asia Cups we have had, and we are looking forward to the final”
Dasun Shanaka has his eyes are firmly on the prize ahead of Sunday’s showpiece final
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000