This Bangladesh team seems hell bent on changing people’s perception of them. Almost a year ago, they made the world sit up and take notice when they knocked England out of the ICC Cricket World Cup and bumped themselves into the last eight of cricket’s premier ODI event. It could have been forgotten as a flash in the pan moment but Mashrafe Mortaza’s boys were determined to not let that happen. "If we didn't do well against Pakistan, our World Cup would have been called a fluke," he said in an interview.
By the end of the year, not only had they whitewashed Pakistan but they had also notched up ODI series wins against India and South Africa. So it was surprising when they came unfancied into this Asia Cup, with the tournament being played in the T20 format for the first time. Pundits were bemused as to how a side that has done so well in ODI cricket in the last year has had such a poor T20 record in the same period (only one win in four series).
They brushed aside this perception as well on Wednesday night, registering only their second T20I win against Pakistan to book a date with India in the final, and send the Sher-e-Bangla stadium into sonic boom. This came after the Tigers' very first win against Sri Lanka on Sunday. Mortaza’s boys are making a habit of this.
One of the reasons cricket purists hold Test cricket sacrosanct is because it allows for ebb and flow. Over five days, a match can take many twists and turns, much like a river will; given it is long enough. This can be difficult in the T20 format, where an entire innings is over before a day of Test cricket could reach Tea. Wednesday’s game though, a virtual semi-final for Bangladesh and an eliminator for Pakistan, had more twists than the Amazon. It was a wonderful exhibition of how much ebb and flow every cricket match can contain irrespective of the format.
Bangladesh’s progress in the game could aptly be described by an inverted bell curve. After a sensational start with the ball, their trough was the Malik-Sarfaraz partnership, though they ended on a high note.
On a wicket seemingly prepared to nullify Mohammed Amir —as devoid of grass as Hashim Amla’s pate is of hair — the Bangladeshi pacers reaped the rewards of bowling a simple line and length, at pace. At one point, Taskin Ahmed had figures of one for three in three overs, and Al-Amin had one for nine in two overs. Mortaza rotated his bowlers cannily, using four different bowlers in the first five overs, three of whom picked up a wicket each. The fielders put the butterfingers-display of the previous games behind them to take every chance that was offered. They reduced Pakistan to 28 for four in the ninth over, but a partnership finally turned up for Pakistan, as Malik and Sarfaraz Khan added 70 vital runs. That set things up nicely for 'Boom Boom' Afridi, who promptly disappointed. Al-Amin’s two wickets at the back end — despite missing most of his yorkers — pulled things back for Bangladesh, and they would have been the happier team at the break, especially with Tamim Iqbal back in the side.
It was Tamim’s opening partner Soumya Sarkar though, who stole the show. Averaging just 13.6 in his last five T20I innings, Sarkar’s form must have been a worry for coach Hathurusingha. It had been masked by the success of Sabbir Rahman at No.3, but Sarkar allayed those fears, showing a mix of prudence and aggression while playing the ball to its merit. His six off the fifth bowler Anwar Ali — who Bangladesh deliberately targeted — was so well-timed that you heard rather than saw it. Sarkar pounced on the short ball whenever it was employed against him, and when he was batting it seemed that Bangladesh’s graph would take a straightforward ascent. However, the inverted bell curve made its appearance again, as Amir yorked Sarkar for a run-a-ball 48. Bangladesh’s batting trough extended from the 11th to the 16th over, where they could not find the boundary, lost Sarkar and Mushfiqur, and the required run rate crept above nine.
When Bangladesh did peak again, it was in a confluence of class, courage and comedy, the last of which Pakistan would not have found funny.
The class was Mahmudullah himself, who has proven my calls for him to bat higher wrong by becoming a finisher more bankable than a fixed deposit. In a tournament which has seen superb cover drives from Kohli, and sublime flicks from Rohit, Mahmudullah’s backfoot punch for six over mid off — against the seven-foot something Irfan no less — was the 'shot of the tournament' by far. He later attributed it to the hours of practice on granite that he had put in, in the preceding months. The shot broke the shackles and helped Bangladesh get some momentum in the chase again.
The courage came from coach Chandika Haturusingha. Despite having a regular batter sitting in the pavilion, he sent out Mashrafe Mortaza when Shakib fell, no doubt banking on his ability to give the ball a tonk as much as his experience. And how the move paid off! Mortaza’s two boundaries off Amir were worth their weight in gold, as the vociferous crowd at Mirpur reminded Pakistan.
The comedy was provided by Mohammed Sami, who after bowling admirably in his previous three overs, bowled two no balls in the 19th over to all but hand Bangladesh the win. The first no ball could be down to putting in the extra effort, with Sami perhaps trying to make up for a misfield off Amir in the previous over that allowed a boundary. The second, however, was unforgivable. Not bowling no balls is one of the most controllable skills a fast bowler has and one that is the most easily correctable even in a pressure situation. It is just a matter of bowling from a foot behind your mark. So it was a comedy of errors that allowed 15 runs to be scored in the 19th, despite some really good yorkers being bowled and Mortaza being caught. The inverted bell curve had peaked again, with some palpitation like spikes at the end.
When the players walked off the field after Mahmudullah hit the winning runs, you knew that Bangladesh were no longer a flash in the pan, nor underdogs, even in the T20 format. They had beaten Sri Lanka and Pakistan. They were in their second Asia Cup final. And the team T-shirts Bangladeshi players were wearing said it all: “The best is yet to come”.
They made sure they did not feel the absence of the phenomenon that is Mustafizur, whose side strain will mean he will miss the final as well.