“Unbelievable! At the start of the tournament, I had imagined a lot of things, but not this one,” said cricket fan Shamsul Arefin reacting to the news of Bangladesh qualifying for the semi-final of the ICC Champions Trophy after England defeated Australia by 40 runs on Saturday.
For some other hardcore fans, this was probably an over-reaction to a deserving success as many of them truly believed in the prospects of their team in this tournament. But most of the rational thinkers, including Bangladesh captain Mashrafe Mortaza, had chosen to be realistic about their chances.
From a group comprising England, Australia and New Zealand, it was hard to see Bangladesh moving into the semi-finals, despite their rapid progress over the past two years. Mashrafe was cautious about raising expectations and did not talk about their semis chances optimistically until it really happened.
The conditions suited other teams in the group much better than the Asian side. And going by their poor history against quality pace attack in seaming conditions, there were very few betting on them qualifying for the last four. But this Bangladesh team continued their recent trend of surprising their fans and cricket pundits alike.
The epic win over New Zealand came as a statement from the side that was regarded as international whipping boys not so long ago. From a cricketing perspective, this was an epoch-making effort, even though by itself it was not enough for them to qualify for the semi-final. They needed a favour from England, who had to beaten Australia for their progress. Much to the delight of Bangladeshi fans, the hosts did it in another rain-hit match in Edgbaston.
England had their own reason to beat Australia: payback for some of the embarrassment the team from Down Under had caused them in the past. Bangladeshi fans were just hoping for England to repeat the form that made them the most dangerous side in world cricket since they returned empty-handed from Down Under in the 2015 World Cup.
Any stranger taking a stroll on Saturday evening at the Dhaka University campus — a common celebration area in Bangladesh — would have been very puzzled. Hundreds of students glued to the screen in the television room cheered on every run made by Ben Stokes and Eoin Morgan against Australia. The fall of three quick wickets earlier in their innings brought pindrop silence just like the other day when Bangladesh had lost three wickets for 12 against New Zealand. It was difficult to distinguish Dhaka from Dover, or any other English town for that matter.
Stokes and Morgan are not two of most popular cricketers in Bangladesh. Morgan refused to tour the country last October citing security concerns, despite most of his teammates choosing to do otherwise. His decision to skip the tour made him enemy number one for Bangladeshi fans, with the Englishman replacing Rohit Sharma, the beneficiary of a dubious no-ball in the World Cup 2015 quarter-final.
Stokes drew the ire of Bangladeshi fans for his confrontation with Tamim Iqbal during the same series. Shakib Al Hasan mockingly saluting him after his dismissal in the second Test in Dhaka is now part of Bangladesh’s cricketing fairytale, which many fans remembered again during his innings on Saturday. The fans saluted him again, but not to mock him this time, rather to show their love for the volatile all-rounder, who played a vital role in England’s win with a career-best score of 102 runs. “Fortune favours the brave!!! Bangladesh got through to semi-final...Ben Stokes is forgiven for his past behavior,” was how one expatriate Bangladeshi living in UAE wrote on Facebook.
The celebration after the game was muted though. There was no big procession after the England win despite it confirming Bangladesh’s maiden semi-final berth in an ICC event. “We were indeed planning to bring a procession like we did the other day after Bangladesh defeated New Zealand. But we could not do so because of the way the game ended,” said Rezaul Karim, a fourth-year student of Management and Information System. “Many of us were not sure when it would end. Other than that we thoroughly enjoyed the game.”
For many cricket fans, however, England owed this favour to Bangladesh. During the England-Australia match, one of the country’s major English-language dailies, Dhaka Tribune, retrieved a 2013 report from its archives to show the readers how former English opener Geoffrey Boycott once criticised the ICC for wasting its money on Bangladesh.
“It's too much easy money. As soon as the ICC stops giving them money, maybe they'll do something about it. Maybe they need a jolt, a sharp jolt,” Boycott had said in ESPNCricinfo’s ‘Bowl at Boycs’ podcast in April 2013.
English cricketers were the most vocal about Bangladesh’s Test status in the past. Boycott was particularly harsh, calling Bangladesh an “embarrassment to Test cricket” in the annual MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in 2005.
Many former English cricketers have recently changed their opinion about Bangladesh. Bangladesh have, at least, forced their critics to eat humble pie. Nasser Hussein praised the team from the commentary box as ‘mighty Bangladesh’ after their win over New Zealand, while Michael Vaughn branded Shakib and Mahmudullah’s partnership in Twitter as “#BestEver.”
But Bangladeshis were not satisfied with this mere praise this time, they wanted more from England and it came in the shape of hosts’ win over Australia.