If you thought the Nidahas Trophy would be a drab affair, think again. It could well have been dismissed as an event of low significance, squeezed in somehow in a packed international schedule to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence. It could well have been scoffed at, with India playing the islanders for the umpteenth time in recent months, thereby stripping the contest of charm, and with a middle rung international team in the form of Bangladesh being the third contender in the series.
But the tournament so far has had all the makings of a potboiler. Favourites India were shocked in their opening match by Sri Lanka, as their inexperienced bowlers leaked runs in torrents, and handed over the initiative that their batsmen provided them back to the hosts. The Lankans, who had not had the best of times in the shortest format of the game in recent times, and least so against India, looked the real deal.
The islanders were, however, stunned by a resolute Bangladesh, not once, but twice — first as a result of a record run chase led by Mushfiqur Rahim, and then, a well-calculated, composed performance doing the trick in a make-or-break situation. Bangladesh's qualification for the final was, however, marred by very petulant and objectionable conduct by some of their players in their last group match, against the Lankans.
The tournament has had drama and the final promises to be no different as a passionate Bangladesh take on a clinical India for the title. It reminds one of the Asia Cup in 2016 when Bangladesh pipped the much-fancied Pakistan and Sri Lanka to the final, in which they lost to India. They have had a couple of memorable Test wins too — over England and Australia — in the intervening period and they have in every measure come of age.
However, the biggest bane for Bangladesh has been their inconsistency. It is no surprise then that between two stellar performances against Sri Lanka, they had put up two pretty pedestrian shows against India. It is no surprise also that they had lost 13 of the 14 T20Is they played before the landmark chase of 215 in their first encounter with the hosts in this tournament.
But now, after that win in the emotionally-charged virtual semi-final on Friday, Bangladesh have wind in their sails. Skipper and talisman Shakib Al Hasan, who returned to the side after missing the first few matches due to injury, felt so as well. "India are a very good side but we have the momentum, so hopefully we can continue the performance," said Shakib.
India versus Bangladesh matches in recent times, whether it is the World Cup quarter-final in 2015, or the Asia Cup final in 2016, have given rise to quite a bit of rivalry, though Bangladesh would have to start winning more frequently to sustain that rivalry. They have been beaten by India seven times out of seven that the two sides have faced each other in T20Is, and now they have an opportunity to rectify that adverse statistic on the big stage — in the final of a tournament, notwithstanding the weight of that tournament.
India have sent a second string side for the Nidahas Trophy, giving a number of their regular players, including superstars Virat Kohli and Mahendra Sigh Dhoni, a well-deserved break. It has also been an opportunity for the selectors to test the bench strength in game situations, and it has to be said that the Shardul Thakurs and Washington Sundars have given an excellent account of themselves so far.
In many ways, India have been well served by their bowlers. Thakur has been the pick of the pacers and after an indifferent opening game, came back strongly, going for just 25 runs in his four overs, while taking a wicket against Bangladesh and destroying Sri Lanka in the next match with 4/27.
Sundar has gone for less than six runs an over in every match except the first. Now, in T20 cricket, that is a phenomenal achievement. His ability to take the new ball and bowl in the powerplay overs without going for too many has been acclaimed by all and sundry.
Ace wrist-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, on the other hand, is due for a big performance, while Jaydev Unadkat would want to cut down on the runs he has been conceding.
Bangladesh would do well to send in their openers, Tamim Iqbal and Liton Das, with the mandate to go after Sundar. Counter-attacking tactics had worked well for Bangladesh against Sri Lanka, and they would be keen to put them into practice again.
Indeed, stand-in skipper Mahmudullah had talked about a Bangladeshi brand of cricket. "We need to be smart, the skills are there but we need to be smart to take those calculated risks – from taking on a particular bowler and whoever thinks can take him on, should go for it. There needs to be good communication between every batsman. This will lead us to create our own brand. We don't have those kind of power-hitters and we acknowledge that fact. When we started this tour, we planned of creating this Bangladeshi brand of cricket," he had said.
Mahmudullah played a gem of an innings against the Lankans on Friday, scoring a sparkling 18-ball 43. He steadied the ship when there was a mini-collapse with Bangladesh losing three wickets for 12 runs in a space of 14 balls, and stayed unbeaten till the end, taking his team home. Mahmudullah is one of the key Bangladesh batsmen along with Tamim, Liton and Rahim. Their bowling line-up comprising the likes of Shakib, Mustafizur Rahman and Mehidy Hasan can pack a punch too.
The big relief for India, on the other hand, is that stand-in captain Rohit Sharma roared back into form with a majestic 61-ball 89 in the last match against Bangladesh. He has been having a horror run of late, but if he fires he can take a game away from the opposition in the blink of an eye. Suresh Raina also got some handy runs under his belt against Bangladesh, and Shikhar Dhawan, Dinesh Karthik and Manish Pandey have been among the runs too.
The pitch at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo in known to have runs in it, but the Indian bowlers have done well to restrict the opposition in this tournament. The power and pedigree of India make them the favourites to win the final, but they must guard against a passionate Bangladesh, ready to give it their all.
Eleven years ago, very nearly on the same day of the year, Bangladesh had handed India one of their most shocking losses ever, at the 2007 World Cup. It was a result which would go on to majorly contribute to India's ouster from the first round itself. India would do well to sift through the history books before taking the field on Sunday. Certainly, Shakib's boys are no pushovers.
India: Rohit Sharma(c), Shikhar Dhawan, Lokesh Rahul, Suresh Raina, Manish Pandey, Dinesh Karthik, Deepak Hooda, Washington Sundar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Rishabh Pant, Axar Patel, Vijay Shankar, Shardul Thakur, Jaydev Unadkat, Mohammed Siraj
Bangladesh: Shakib Al Hasan(c), Tamim Iqbal, Soumya Sarkar, Mushfiqur Rahim, Sabbir Rahman, Mustafizur Rahman, Rubel Hossain, Abu Jayed, Liton Das, Mahmudullah, Taskin Ahmed, Imrul Kayes, Nurul Hasan, Mehidy Hasan, Ariful Haque, Nazmul Islam, Abu Hider Rony
Match starts at 7pm IST