Not so very long ago, cricket reporters went to work on days featuring India-Bangladesh games with a sense of overwhelming ennui. ‘Oh god not another one of those – what is there to write?!’ used to be the plaintive wail of those who found the game on their duty roster.
Not to disrespect Bangladesh, but what the hell was there to write, anyway? For the most part, games between the two sides were occasions for off-colour Indian batsmen to fill their boots and puff up their CVs while earning some easy points to move up the rankings ladder. The most you could hope for was a blue-moon result, an upset that allowed you to get all gooey and patronizing about underdogs and Robert Bruce and all that guff.
Not anymore. Bangladesh ranks alongside England as one of the most improved teams over the last two years and more – and where England has earned its chops through all-out aggression, the sub-continental team has rid itself of the easy-beats tag with all-round skill and attitude, with discipline when it matters and resilience when it is called for and above all, with the calm certitude that they belong at this level.
This was best exemplified the other day in the game against New Zealand. In that game Bangladesh, punching way above its prescribed weight, bowled to plans and fielded with panache to restrict the Kiwis to 265, saw the top half of its batting sliced away by the incisive pace of Trent Boult and Tim Southee, and still won with 16 balls and five wickets to spare thanks to the composure of Shakib al-Hasan and Mahmudullah. That is how champions, even putative ones, play – with the knowledge that no game is lost in the field that is not already lost in the mind.
There is much about this Bangladesh outfit that reminds you of the Indian team that stunned the world – and, inadvertently, triggered a tectonic shift in the cricketing power centre – back in 1983. And in that sense, just as India announced itself with the win over West Indies in the lead up to that World Cup, the real Bangladesh turn-around began with its 2-1 defeat of South Africa back in 2015 – the fourth in a sequence of bilateral wins that began with Zimbabwe and included Pakistan and India. It is easy to dismiss those results as having come on home soil, but “We gained self-respect by beating those sorts of teams,” Bangladesh captain Mashrafe Mortaza pointed out in the pre-match press conference. That self-respect has in turn enabled them to trust themselves, to formulate plans for success rather than just show up to be rolled over.
Throughout this latest appearance on the world stage, they have had their bowling, led by a pace quartet with serious chops, lauded in song. Cricinfo recently carried a full-length feature on how Mortaza and coach Chandika Hathurusingha rebelled against internal typecasting and willing into being an emphasis on quality pace. What has gone relatively unsung is the fact that their batting unit has developed steel and character, to the point where it is now capable of holding its own against the best in the world.
The record tells the tale. Bangladesh batsmen have notched up three of the eight centuries recorded thus far in this edition of the Champions’ Trophy. England has two, no other team has more than one. They have also notched up the two highest partnerships in the tournament thus far – and the quality of the partnerships, by Tamim Iqbal and Mushfiqur Rahim (166) against England and the one between Shakib al-Hasan and Mahmudullah (224) the other day against New Zealand tell their own story.
“We never give up,” Mortaza said in that presser, underlining the single fundamental change in the team make-up. “And once you have played at your best, you know how well you can play, and then things can change. I know, on our day, we can do anything.”
That’s it, right there. And it encapsulates the chicken-and-egg paradox of sport: you have to win, you have to internalize the feel of victory, before you learn how to win (again, think of the differences between India ’79 and ’83). Bangladesh in recent times has tasted victories; they have tested their strengths and duct-taped their weaknesses, and now they have a lean and hungry look about them. “Such men”, Julius Caesar famously ventriloquized Shakespeare, “are dangerous.”