What was the most watched sporting event at the weekend? It wasn’t the launch of the NFL season. Nor the pointy end of the U.S. Open tennis grand slam. And, scratch that, not the World Cups of global sports basketball and rugby union.
It was almost certainly a 50-over cricket match played in Colombo, Sri Lanka, between bitter foes India and Pakistan – a contest likely to be obscure to most parts of the world.
But for those in the well populated countries, combining more than 1.6 billion people many of whom are cricket obsessed, their eyes were glued to the blockbuster Super Four stage at the Asia Cup.
Previous contests between the arch-rivals over the past decade have been watched by a viewership of between 300 million to 500 million.
But an intense political situation spills over and into cricket, where bitter foes India and Pakistan rarely play each other. When they do, the anticipation is palpable for a match affecting the national psyche of the countries and used as a political football by the warring governments.
It is the most anticipated battle on the cricket calendar and an absolute money-spinner. So much so that the Asia Cup is seen as something of an excuse to stage India-Pakistan matches.
It’s not just a cynical take. As I’ve reported previously, the entire monetization of the broadcast is based on these blockbusters and the Asia Cup is where almost all the Asian Cricket Council’s funds are derived from.
There is a lot riding on these games. Organizers know this all too well. It’s little surprise that up to three India-Pakistan games could take place at the short Asia Cup, which consists of just 13 matches overall.
And it’s therefore perhaps inevitable that a farce might arise to safeguard this coveted contest that is unfortunately always marred by distractions in the backdrop. There has been the usual upheaval overshadowing this Asia Cup – and the subsequent World Cup in India – that was supposed to be solely hosted by Pakistan.
According to sources, administrators were worried about the security situation in Pakistan amid the tumult surrounding former prime minister Imran Khan – a cricket legend – and subsequently India did not want to play there.
A predictable fracas ensued with Pakistan threatening to boycott the World Cup, but a compromise was struck with Sri Lanka called upon to host a number of the matches, including the scheduled group game between India and Pakistan on September 2.
But amid the monsoon season, there was always the prospect of inclement weather and the worst fears for tournament organizers were realized when the match in picturesque Kandy was abandoned after India was bowled out for 266 in the 49th over.
Fortunately, though basically a foregone conclusion, India and Pakistan reached the Super Four Stage – a prolonged semi-final stage effectively devised to ensure another bonanza – with the blockbuster pencilled in for September 10 in Colombo.
But with rain again hovering menacingly, desperate tournament organizers intervened knowing another washout would be disastrous.
So they shoehorned a reserve day for September 11, but the other Super Four games – involving Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – did not receive the contingency. Instead, points will be shared if a result is not possible due to rain.
Sri Lanka coach Chris Silverwood tried to be diplomatic. “Little surprised when I first heard,” he said. “To be honest, it will be a problem if the reserve day then provides points to the teams and not someone else.”
Silverwood has turned out to be prophetic with a reserve day needed after rain limited Sunday’s action to just 24 overs. India made full use of the bonus play on Monday as they notched a record 228-run win over their rival.
Indian fans had plenty to rejoice as they watched their beloved Virat Kohli notch his 47th ODI century and pass 13,000 runs along the way. He shared in a record partnership with KL Rahul, who also scored a century.
Their charge for victory appeared in doubt when rain halted Pakistan’s innings leaving the tournament’s hierarchy feeling rather nervous.
But the Sri Lanka weather gods seemingly aren’t attuned to karma as play resumed and the mighty Indians claimed an invaluable victory.
But for a tournament with genuine aspirations to become a marquee cricket event, its credibility took a hit.