Asian Games: Minor nations pad up for T20 cricket, South Korea to make debut
Incheon: Cricket's minor nations get a rare chance to shine on the big stage when the Asian Games Twenty20 competition opens on Saturday in the absence of powerhouses India and Pakistan. Defending champions Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are the only two Test nations playing in the 10-country men's tournament that follows the women's event at the Yeonhui cricket field in Incheon.
India, who also snubbed the inaugural competition four years ago, again chose to stay away due to their cricket's board reluctance to be part of multi-discipline Games. Pakistan are fielding only their women's team, which won the gold in Guangzhou in 2010, as the men prepare for the series against Australia starting in the United Arab Emirates next month.
Bangladesh, who won the men's competition four years ago to give the nation their first ever Asian Games gold medal, are at full-strength except for skipper Mushfiqur Rahim who has taken time off to get married. The Tigers welcomed back star all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan, who served out a disciplinary ban, and seamer Rubel Hossain. They replaced Sohag Gazi and Al-Amin Hossain, who were reported for suspect bowling actions recently.
Sri Lanka are led by Lahiru Thirimanne, who was part of the national squad that won the World Twenty20 title in Bangladesh in April. But is the sports minnows and their unbridled enthusiasm that promises to light up a tournament that the Korean organisers wanted scratched before the Asian Cricket Council stepped in.
Kuwait make their Games debut with home grown cricketers that include the rare instance of a father, Mahmoud Bastaki, and his son Fahad playing in the same team. Hong Kong will consider themselves medal aspirants following their shock win over hosts Bangladesh at the World Twenty20 and prepared themselves by touring Sri Lanka.
South Korea make their cricket debut after hiring Bangladesh's former English coach Julien Fountain to teach baseball players the nuances of the willow sport. "One important tip to them was to play with a straight bat," Fountain said, after observing most batsmen slogging in true baseball style."
Afghanistan, who have qualified for the 50-over World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in February-March, will miss most of their top players who are currently touring Australia. "The tournament is wide open," said former Bangladesh captain Aminul Islam, who works with the Asian Cricket Council. "One short passage of play in T20 can decide a match so no team can be underestimated."
To even out the competition, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Hong Kong have been given a bye into the quarter-finals where they will be joined by four minnows after a league phase. In the women's event which starts on Saturday, defending champions Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Japan will await four teams from the league in the quarter-finals.