Bangladesh were up against history. They had never beaten India in a T20 International before. They had not played an international against India in India in 18 years. They would play their first such game, against the pre-tournament favourites, in Bengaluru. The boundaries at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium are short, designed to make Chris Gayle’s top edges look like monster hits. This is the cauldron which lends as much of its voice to AB de Villiers as it does to Virat Kohli. This is the coliseum where heroes are adored, irrespective of which country they come from, as long as they endear themselves to the crowd. Bangladesh were up against more than just history.
The visitors wanted to make an impact. That much was clear. They were the side to watch in the 2015 ODI World Cup. They were the side to watch in the recent Asia Cup. They were the side to watch in round one. Bangladesh won no silverware for those efforts but they made an impact. They had not made an impact in the World T20 Super 10s. So they were hungry. But they were also wounded, as a nation and as a team. Taskin Ahmed, their young strike bowler, had been suspended from bowling, as was their No.2 spinner Arafat Sunny. But they were still hungry.
Mashrafe Mortaza has been Bangladesh’s captain for six months and a year. MS Dhoni has been captain since 2007. One is emotive, charismatic, wears his heart on sleeve. The other is a facade, like the Wall in Game of Thrones; imposing, but not invincible. They are different, yet similar. Both are on the wrong side of 30, though only one of them is showing it. Both lead from the front. While one is known for his -- often unconventional -- tactical nous, the other showed on Wednesday that he is not far behind either.
Mortaza did what very few captains have done before. He used a deep cover in the power play. It was not a defensive move. Using a fielder in a defensive position to block your opponent’s strength is an attacking move. It was not without thought or danger. He took the risk of keeping the third man inside the ring while the fast bowlers operated. It is almost unheard of. But he did it.
Dhoni’s India responded with patience mixed with aggression. Mortaza took the pace off the ball. He had read the pitch right. He used the same approach in his bowling changes. Pace off the ball, on a track that had some turn. He used cutters, slower balls and variations in the right areas. Like a tiger changing his stripes in a Taskin-less environment, Mortaza changed his pace-first approach. He adapted, and at the end of his own four-over spell, had conceded no boundaries or sixes. It was a personal record. He used five bowlers in the first six overs. It almost didn’t work. Then it did. There were no boundaries scored from overs seven to 10, despite Virat Kohli being at the crease.
He gambled at the end again. He introduced a part time off spinner in the last four overs. With Dhoni at the crease. It worked. Mahmudullah removed Yuvraj Singh. Mortaza had strangled India to just 32 runs off the last four overs, despite Dhoni being at the crease. It was a scramble, not a bloodbath.
Dhoni gambled too. He pushed Hardik Pandya up the order. It almost worked. Then Soumya Sarkar made sure it didn’t, and soon enough, Bangladesh were batting.
Mortaza knew Dhoni’s tactics well. He knew Dhoni likes to use his spinners to take the ball away from the batters. He holds back Jadeja if there are left-handers at the crease. He employs Ashwin instead. But Mortaza had plenty of options in the batting department, plenty of left-handers. He shuffled his batting order. He made sure that a left-hander was always around when Jadeja was bowling.
It is impossible to keep Dhoni out of a match. He is the invisible puppet master, who you occasionally get a glimpse of through the curtains. The stumping of the fluent Sabbir Rahman gave us such a glimpse. Sabbir didn’t know what had happened until the bails lit up with his foot a centimetre in the air. If Dhoni had clipped off the bails a fraction of a second earlier or later, it would have been too early or too late. It almost was. It wasn’t.
So Mortaza sent himself up the order. It was the highest he had ever batted. Another risk. But it allowed Shakib to play freely. It almost came off. Then it didn’t.
He held back his finisher and his experienced batter to finish the game. To bat with calm heads. To do their jobs despite Jasprit Bumrah’s automaton like yorkers. Despite Ashish Nehra’s almost 37-year old wiles. Despite Hardik Pandya’s air-jumping exuberance. They took Bangladesh to certain victory. Perhaps they celebrated too soon. Perhaps they thought ahead to the history they would create. Perhaps they were defeated by Pandya’s inability to land a yorker. Or perhaps that was another of the puppet master’s moves.
Dhoni had one final move to make. The removal of one glove for the last ball was nothing but a feint. His move was not a throw, Dhoni is not known for that. He is known for his speed. At 34, he is still one of the fastest between the wickets in the world. Dhoni had one final move to make. It was a sprint. And as always, he got there.
Till a month ago, Bangladesh were unable to show in T20Is the kind of promise they have shown in ODIs. Then they beat Pakistan and Sri Lanka to get to the Asia Cup final. They lost to the best T20I side in the world. Then they played India again, in India after 18 years. It must have been like visiting relatives you last visited as boys, only for them to find out you had become men.
They came with a point to prove. That they were not the same team. That they were men.
Mortaza’s boys did everything right. Till the last three balls. They did what was required for Bangladesh to win. They almost changed history. They almost became the heroes the Chinnaswamy didn’t want.
They almost won.
But they didn’t.