For all of the brilliant nuance of Test cricket, it is rare that a match is riveting from start to finish. Bangladesh and England gave us that in Chittagong, a game that was decided by a margin of just 22 runs when England claimed the final two wickets on the morning of Day five.
Bangladesh have come a long way in recent years, especially in white ball cricket. In Tests, they have improved drastically, but they have still only won seven of their 94 Tests. Five of those victories have come against Zimbabwe, who have been a disaster on and off the field for well over a decade. The other two came against the West Indies who picked a third choice team as a result of a player strike in 2009.
A win against England would have been massive. Seismic, even. And Bangladesh were well placed to win this game, having been competitive from the very first ball of the match. Much of that competitiveness was thanks to Mehedi Hasan, an 18-year-old debutant who claimed six wickets in England’s first innings. He was nerveless when he was given the new ball and appeared completely at home despite his age and inexperience.
Mehedi wasn’t the only Bangladesh spinner to impress, with Shakib al Hasan picking up five wickets in the second innings. In fact, 19 of the 20 England wickets fell to Bangladesh’s spinners who were more than a match for their opposition counterparts.
With a bowling lineup that appears capable of taking 20 wickets in a match at home, combined with a top order that is now both experienced and returning consistent runs, that tally of Test victories for Bangladesh will increase sooner rather than later. The addition of Sabbir Rahman to the batting line up has only made that more likely; his 64 not out in the second innings was good enough to have been match winning more often than not.
In fact, the issue seems to be as much about crossing the line as it does about talent. Emerging victorious from tight situations is one of the harder skills to learn, and the only way players get better at handling those situations is by being in them as often as possible.
There have been a number of high profile matches in recent times where Bangladesh have surrendered what seemed to be a situation from which they couldn’t lose – not least when they failed to score two runs off the final three balls of their match against India at the World T20 in March this year. Finding a way to win is the final hurdle for this Bangladesh team that is filled with runs and wickets.
While Bangladesh’s spin bowlers performed brilliantly there are still massive questions about England’s tweakers and their ability to keep things tight, and whether they can put together match winning spells.
Of those that played in this Test, Moeen Ali was the most impressive by a distance. He seemed to instinctively know the speed at which he needed to bowl to get the best out of this pitch, and with five wickets across the two Bangladesh innings, he got the most reward as well. Combined with his 68 with the bat in the first innings, which was scored with England in real trouble at 21 for three, he contributed plenty to this England win. While there may be better spin bowlers out there, there are not many better all round cricketers.
England’s two other spinners did well enough, Gareth Batty claimed three vital top order wickets in Bangladesh’s chase and more than justified his recall to the side at the age of 39. While he never looked liked running through the opposition, he did a decent job opening the bowling in both innings.
Adil Rashid did what Adil Rashid does. He bowled some balls that were both literally and figuratively unplayable, interspersed with long hops, full tosses and other associated dross. He accounted for Imrul Kayes in the second innings when the opener had 43, and got the well set Mahmudullah with a perfect leg break that was caught at second slip in the first innings.
While all three English spinners did their job, they were outplayed by their Bangladeshi opponents. Not only did the home team’s spinners take more wickets they kept the scoring rate under control with much more parsimonious zeal. While the Bangladesh slower bowlers conceded 2.35 runs an over throughout the match the visitors spinners went at 3.43 runs an over.
Spin, both bowling it and batting against it, has never been an English strength. They have always relied on quick bowlers and Ben Stokes was quite rightly given man of the match as much for his efforts with the ball as it was with the bat. In Bangladesh’s second innings, he took four wickets for just 10 runs to clean up the second half of their batting line up. On the fifth morning, it was Stokes that picked up the last two wickets to claim victory.
While Stuart Broad went wicketless in the first innings, his spell late on Day four was unsettling to face and saw him pick up two vital wickets. Chris Woakes did not claim a wicket in this match but he conceded just 25 runs in the 14 overs that he bowled.
If England are to get anything out of their matches in India that follow this series, it will be the quick bowlers keeping the scoring rate down and getting the ball to reverse that will be their best chance. And they may well have to do that without James Anderson who will miss at least the first of those Indian Tests.
England may have won this game but it will be them that have more selection decisions to make ahead of the second Test that starts in Dhaka on Friday. Gary Ballance is now averaging 22 since his return to the Test side and if England are going to replace him with the teenaged Haseeb Hameed, they may want to do so before they get to India.
If Hameed does come into the team you would suspect that Ben Duckett will move down the order and Alastair Cook will have his tenth opening partner since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012.
The other option is to replace Ballance with Jos Buttler who could come into the team as a specialist batsman. Buttler last played a Test back in October 2015, but he is well liked by the England management and has been hugely impressive in white ball cricket.
This win by England was thrilling and hard earned, but there are still a lot of questions for them to answer ahead of the trip to India which will be the stiffest test many of these players have ever faced.