In a bizarre and controversial pre-tournament prediction, former New Zealand skipper Brendon McCullum recently speculated only one victory for Bangladesh in their campaign in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019. Well, on Wednesday at the Oval, the Blackcaps came tantalisingly close to being outclassed by the spirited Tigers, who just refused to give up while defending a below-par 245. McCullum was at the ground commentating, and by the time the game had ended, he must have realised his mistake of underestimating this Bangladesh team.
Having thrashed Sri Lanka by 10 wickets in their tournament opener, coming into this fixture, New Zealand's ruthless efficiency was valued much higher than Bangladesh's skills and spirit. Under a gloomy sky, when Kane Williamson won the toss and asked Bangladesh to bat first, the challenge became much stiffer for the Asians.
But they never threw in the towel.
Bangladesh were not just competitive, they almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Firstly while setting a score, against the likes of Trent Boult, Matt Henry, and Lockie Ferguson, their batting showed a lot of composure and never allowed the opposition to dominate them, despite the overhead conditions allowing New Zealand pacers to extract sideways movement. Every one of their top eight reached double figures, but barring Shakib Al Hasan, who top scored with 64, none was able to convert their starts into a significant contribution.
At the halfway stage, 244 indeed looked like at least 25-30 runs short of what would have been an ideal total on that pitch. And with the kind of depth and firepower the New Zealand batting has, the debate in the social media was how soon they can warp up the contest.
However, while defending that moderate score, Bangladesh literally made New Zealand sweat, despite a 105-run third wicket stand between Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor. Apart from an unfortunate blunder by wicketkeeper Mushfiqur Rahim while collecting a ball to run Williamson out, Bangladesh, led by an inspirational Mashrafe Mortaza, fought like their life was dependent on it.
Martin Guptill provided New Zealand an early flourish in the run chase. He got his team off to a flyer as they reach 35 for no loss after fives overs. However, Bangladesh skipper was proactive enough to bring his best spinner, Shakib into the attack early. It was a used surface and the ball was gripping a bit. The left-armer had an immediate impact as Guptill holed out at the long-on region. Soon, he removed Colin Munro as well and hope raised in the Bangladesh camp.
Nevertheless, the experienced pair of Williamson and Taylor took control from there. Helped by the fumble of Mushfiqur, which provided a lifeline to Williamson, the New Zealand ship seemed more or less steady in the middle overs. But the credit to Bangladesh was that they never dropped their intensity level on the field, even when the opponent needed runs in double figures with an asking rate of less than five per over, and they had eight wickets in their kitty.
The Tigers smelled blood when Mehidy Hasan produced a double breakthrough over, removing Williamson and Tom Latham. With 83 needed in 18 overs with six wickets in hand, suddenly Bangladesh were back in business. The bowlers roared under floodlights, backed up by their thousands of vivacious supporters in the stands. And when Taylor got out, the real drama unfolded.
The lower-middle order crumbled against Mohammad Saifuddin's pace. In those final phases of the game, with all his variations, he out-bowled his teammate Mustafizur Rahman. The run-rate was not an issue but wickets were falling at quick successions.
Eventually, the disaster was averted as New Zealand survived with Mitchell Santner and Lockie Ferguson clawing their way over the line with 17 balls and just two wickets to spare.
In hindsight, the Tigers went down fighting.
Nevertheless, the competitiveness they had shown in this contest, especially in the second half, is bound to earn them a lot of respect. And this daring effort of their bowling attack, which is not the strength of this Bangladesh team, will inject a lot of confidence and self-belief in this unit going forward in this World Cup.