An unbeaten 26 off 22 balls from captain Harmanpreet Kaur saw India see off their stiffest challenge yet in the Women’s Asia Cup T20 competition, as India overcame Pakistan at the Asian Institute of Technology ground in Bangkok on Tuesday. The win meant that India maintained their unbeaten run in the Women’s Asia Cup, and are on track to defend the title they have held since 2004.

The match was shrouded in suspense even before a ball was bowled, due to the furore over India’s forfeiture of the International Cricket Council’s Women’s Championship points to Pakistan.

Off-field intrigue

India and Pakistan were due to play a bilateral One-Day International series against each other by October, as part of the final leg of the ICC Women’s Championship, a three-year long event that decides automatic qualification for the Women’s World Cup. However, due to diplomatic tensions between the two countries, the series never took place. It meant that the teams played only 18 matches in the Championship, as opposed to the 21 that every other country played.

More disconcerting, were reports that the forfeit was a result of the lack of communication from the BCCI in response to queries by the ICC. According to this report in the Indian Express, an ICC insider is quoted to have said, “The ICC made several queries, but the Indian board didn’t respond. The technical committee had to take a decision, for the tournament was coming to an end.”

These boardroom machinations did not affect an India-Pakistan encounter in a global event though, nor did it affect the morale of the Indian team, who kept their cool to register a last over win, and maintain their spotless record in this tournament. It took some doing though, as Pakistan claimed five Indian wickets in the chase of a modest 97. It was not the first time Pakistan had stretched their neighbours.

Rising Pakistan, falling Sri Lanka

India have had it pretty easy in the Asia Cup since the inception of the tournament in 2004. On that occasion, it was only India and Sri Lanka in the fray, in an ODI competition held in the Island Nation. Pakistan were supposed to send a team but they did not. In 2005, Pakistan joined as both participants and hosts, but only watched as the Sri Lankans continued to challenge India’s domination in vain. India hosted the next edition, in 2006, and then the tournament moved to Sri Lanka in 2008. On both occasions, India defeated Sri Lanka in the final. The 2008 edition also included Bangladesh, who made their debut in the big league, and even notched up their first win against Pakistan.

The Asia Cup disappeared off the international calendar for four years, only to be revived with a major makeover in 2012. Its format contracted – from ODIs to T20Is – but its scope expanded – from four to eight teams. Thailand, Nepal, Hong Kong and hosts China joined the incumbents, in an event that was held at the same venue that hosted the Guangzhou Asian Games.

The event was conducted under the aegis of the Asian Cricket Council, who had a clear mandate of developing cricket outside the traditional power houses.

The purpose of the Asia Cup

“The ACC was started with the goal of giving the associates a structure to play in”, said Shubhangi Kulkarni, former India captain and the Asia representative on the ICC Women’s Cricket committee. “We conducted associate tournaments in Asia every year, and some teams started getting really good. But the gap between them and the Test playing nations was still huge. So we decided to give them exposure against the top teams, which is the best way to improve”, she added.

The 2016 edition has been trimmed down to six teams, featuring two associate nations, Nepal and the hosts Thailand. “Hosts Thailand have reached the ICC Women’s World T20 Qualifier in both 2013 and 2015 by virtue of winning ACC tournaments in both 20 and 40-over formats and they recently won the ICC Asia World Cup Qualifier which was held in Hong Kong in October. Nepal narrowly lost both their matches with Thailand but finished in second place in the four-team event to qualify for this tournament,” said the ACC website.

While the tournament has been conducted once every four years since 2008, Kulkarni clarified that it was not a deliberate attempt to make it a quadrennial event. “There is no policy as such, but in 2014 the ICC stepped in to handle development of associate cricket, so there was a break. In the pre ICC-BCCI days, we conducted it every year (2004-2006). After the merger it has been sporadic.”

It was in the Asian Games at Guangzhou (not to be confused with cricket’s Asia Cup) in 2010 that the Pakistan side began their ascent. With the BCCI inexplicably declining to send either men’s or women’s teams for cricket’s debut at the games, Pakistan beat Sri Lanka in the final to clinch gold. In 2011, they became the first Asian team to have a contracted women’s side, and in 2012, they made their first Asia Cup final, and gave India an almighty scare, months after beating them for the first time in the World Twenty20 in 2012.

So it is far from surprising that India were pushed by Pakistan in Tuesday’s game in Bangkok. Pakistan have usurped the title of prime challengers from Sri Lanka, whose fortunes have wilted just as Pakistan’s have bloomed. India too have had a barren 12 months in the T20I format, not making the semi-finals of a home World Twenty20 in March, and then being handed a 3-0 drubbing by eventual champions the West Indies earlier this month.

This has set up the tournament nicely for what should be an India-Pakistan final on December 4. The fact that the final will be televised on Star Sports, who have bought the rights from the ACC, makes it even more inviting. Irrespective of the result, the Asia Cup is a tournament that women’s cricket, associate women’s cricket in particular, needs. Hopefully it will not be another four years before we see it again.

Snehal Pradhan is a former women’s international cricketer. She tweets here.