On the 26th of March, 1971, people of what used to be called East Pakistan began their violent struggle for independence. It was a guerrilla war that lasted nine months, and cost more than three million lives. It ended with assistance from the Indian armed forces and led to the creation of a new nation in the sub-continent. Bangladesh.
On the 26th of March, 2016, Bangladesh completed its struggle for independence on the cricket field as well. Not from oppression, injustice, or military rule. But freedom from patronising words such as ‘underdogs’, ‘minnows’, or ‘pushovers’.
As with most freedom struggles, the last days are often the darkest. Bangladesh’s WT20 result sheet reads 0-4. Their batting collapsed against New Zealand and they were shot out for 70 — their lowest-ever T20I score. An embarrassing world record was also made, that of all 10 batsmen getting clean bowled. And who can forget the match against India, the greatest ‘epic-fail’ in the nation’s cricketing history.
But to use the oldest cliché in the books, the night is darkest before the dawn. Despite the losses, calling Bangladesh minnows in limited overs is henceforth likely to result in a bullet hole through the foot.
The facts speak for themselves. 2015 was annus mirabilis for Bangladesh. An ODI World Cup quarterfinal. ODI series victories at home against India and South Africa. Whitewashing Pakistan the same year. Maiden T20I wins against Sri Lanka and Pakistan this year. Reaching another Asia Cup final and giving India an almighty scare in the WT20.
The last achievement, even though it ended in a defeat (an insufficient word to describe what transpired), is what really has changed the perception of Bangladesh. Despite sharing jokes on social media, despite the false bravado after a Houdini win, every Indian supporter knows that it could so easily have been the other way around. And no Indian fan will take Bangladesh lightly ever again.
Just as the Indian army assisted Bangladesh in the final moments of their freedom struggle, the India-Bangladesh match quashed all doubts in the minds of the Indian fan: ‘This team means business. And sooner rather than later, there will come a day when they will beat us.’ An acknowledgement more valuable than any ICC ranking.
If there were doubts about Bangladesh being a good T20 side two months ago, the Asia cup and the WT20 have laid them to rest, despite the scoreline. Bangladesh have performed admirably, despite missing the services of strike bowlers Taskin Ahmed and Mustafizur Rahman for parts of the tournament. When Mustafizur did return, his nine wickets from three games underlined his value to the team.
The form of senior pros Tamim Iqbal (295 runs in six matches) and Shakib Al Hasan (10 wickets and 129 runs) has been heartening as well. And in Sabbir Rahman, Bangladesh just might have unearthed the world class talent they need to make the next jump. Sabbir has registered double figures in his last 10 T20I innings, and crossed 30 in four of them. The 24 year old seems to have ample time even while playing the quickest, and a panoply of shots to go with it. And Mahmudullah Riyadh has proven with his scores that there is some worth in using him as a finisher.
There are some areas that need coach Chandika Hathurusingha’s immediate attention though. Fielding has been a letdown on more than one occasion in this tournament. While there is no shortage of effort, Bangladesh are a mixture of some hard triers and some outright brilliant fielders, as Soumya Sarkar and Sabbir showed. They have proven that they have the goods to run established teams close, but need to sharpen their skills for the final punch. “I think we need to improve a hell of a lot specially the little things, the one-percenters. And then we have enough skill in this group to compete and probably win something very soon”, said Hathurusingha.
Another, more long term project, will be succession planning. Mashrafe Mortaza has been the Tiger’s leader, big brother, and friend. He, assisted by the coaching staff, has been the veritable ‘bongobondhu’ (literally, friend of Bengal) in the creation of Bangladesh’s cricketing identity. His room is said to be a place where players can unburden themselves freely, and his worth is much more than the few overs he bowls, even more than the stratagems he hatches. But in the words of Andrew Fernando, “At times it seems like the man’s disobedient body is being dragged by the collar to the crease by his willpower.” Hopefully not in the next few years, but Mortaza’s body will most likely desert him before his desire or ability, and Bangladesh need to know who will take them forward.
Bangladesh will go home jaded and exhausted, having played 12 T20Is in the last one month. They will go home having lost all their Super 10 games. They will go home heartbroken, after the emotionally draining loss against India, and embarrassed, after their dismantling by New Zealand. But they will not go home as underdogs. They will not go home as minnows. They will not go home as pushovers. One day after the nation celebrated its 45th independence day, the country’s cricketers will return free of all such burdens.