Playing India in India is arguably the toughest gig in world cricket right now, and given the tumultuous build-up to this tour, the common opinion was that Bangladesh are in for a tough time. Not many teams survive an Indian onslaught at home, least of all those that are deprived of their star players. Particularly, if that star player is Shakib Al Hasan, for it is an understatement to say that the Tigers were used to his ever-influential presence.
Enter Mushfiqur Rahim, who has been in this team for almost as long as Shakib. He is an experienced hand, one of their better batsmen, and a senior pro. Yet, he has always been in the shadows of a bigger entity. It is the thumb-rule of any starry combination in cricket. One takes the limelight irrespective of results, the other talked up in glory only in success accounts. Of course, it helped that Shakib was top-ranked as the world’s best all-rounder, and in a cricketing world that boasted of MS Dhoni, being the top keeper-batsman was never a goalpost Rahim could aim for.
Time has changed suddenly now. Whether Rahim pushes for greater international acclaim in the years to come is immaterial, but in Bangladesh cricket’s scheme of things, he is undoubtedly their most important player in the current context. Shakib’s absence has left such a gaping hole in the evolution of this team. Even so, Rahim fits in this space to a tee, and his quiet demeanour allows for the spotlight to be trained elsewhere. It is a matter of getting down to business, and Sunday’s first-ever T20I win for Bangladesh over India was a fine starting point in that regard.
“I said to the journalists before leaving Bangladesh that the only way to return to the right track would be a couple of wins in India. It will bring back smiles and calmness to the nation and the team,” said Rahim, after his man-of-the-match exploits at Delhi.
It was reminiscent of everything Sourav Ganguly had said back at the turn of this millennium, when Indian cricket had been at similar crossroads. Performance on the field, with an honest attitude and fearless approach, was promised and duly delivered under Ganguly’s reign. It is a captain’s prerogative to provide such an environment when disaster is lurking, and his success thereafter is the reason why Ganguly is hailed as one of Indian cricket’s best-ever leaders.
Again though, Bangladesh’s context is very different. They could have rolled back time and gone to Rahim as a stopgap captaincy arrangement, but instead, they looked to Mahmudullah for the future. Consequently, it allows Rahim to assert himself more as a senior player in the side and grow into the void left by Shakib on the basis of his playing skills alone.
Consider his battle with Yuzvendra Chahal, for example. It was the pivotal passage of play in this first T20. Leg spin is at a premium in the shortest format for a good reason, and Chahal was able to tighten up proceedings with his arsenal of tricks. In fact, for a few deliveries, even Rahim didn’t have an answer as he was beaten by the leg break on a couple of occasions.
T20 as a format though allows you to get on top of the bowler within the span of a delivery. Rahim responded to Chahal’s tricks by attacking him at the start of his new over. That slog sweep came out and Chahal never recovered, thanks to Krunal Pandya’s drop as well. Rahim summed up India’s inward-out field beautifully and used the sweep as a percentage shot to release pressure as well as mount it back on the bowlers.
It was calculative cricket at its best. Rahim targeted the spinners deftly and kept the big-bang shots for later, knowing that India’s inexperienced pacers could be taken for runs on a two-paced wicket. In a way, this was a reversal of fortunes from that Bengaluru game in 2016, a loss that still personally rankles Rahim. On that night, Dhoni’s experience and quick thinking had got the better of him. On this smoggy Sunday night in Delhi, Rahim returned the favour in full.
“Beating India in India is always wonderful,” he had said, immediately after the win, almost breathless but hopefully without any lung damage (no thanks to the air pollution). You want to again go back to that aforementioned Ganguly analogy. He had taken India to the ICC Knock-out Trophy in Kenya, and made forth his point. Indian cricket’s revival was anchored on that semi-final run back in 2000.
Bangladesh’s own recovery is stemmed into this Indian tour, and this T20I series will be definitive in more ways than one. Rahim is the man to guide them through, only he doesn’t seem to be holding the rudder of this ship as he is not the captain. But appearances, as has been the case in his entire playing career, can often be deceptive. It is time for him to step out of Shakib’s shadow and Rahim, on current evidence, seems to be revelling in this role.
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