Jhulan Goswami has the ball. She leans in and her legs start their piston like movements, spikes digging into the soft turf. She has bowled four overs already, but there is no fatigue, only ferocity. All of her 6’0’’ frame bears towards her target, the top of off stump.
The batsman’s name is Rumana Ahmed. She stands only 5’3’’ tall, and four balls into the over, her stumps are duly disturbed. Her team, Bangladesh, go on to lose by 182 runs, and still leave the field in good cheer. They have made history; they have played their first match against an ODI-standard team.
But it is not an ODI. It is the Asia Cup, in , and Bangladesh are the new kid on the block: happy to finally be playing with the big girls, but aware that they are the outsiders. An aquarium inside a fishbowl.
Bangladesh play India once more in that tournament, a game which is my first international. Except it isn’t, since someone has decided that Bangladesh aren’t an ODI-standard team yet. They aren’t good enough. The 160 runs they make, or the five Indian wickets they take, don’t count. Neither does the one game that Bangladesh later win.
It’s an unofficial international. If you don’t look hard enough, it doesn’t exist.
Goswami has the ball again. Rumana Ahmed is on strike again. But everything is different.
Goswami is ODI cricket’s highest wicket taker, but it doesn’t matter, this is a T20I. Ahmed is Bangladesh’s top run scorer in T20Is, but the 491 runs she has scored before this don’t matter. What matter are the 42 runs she is batting on. What matters is that she is batting.
Goswami is 10 years older, Ahmed is 10 years wiser. She has played every international game that Bangladesh has played, 75 international caps stretched thin over a decade. She is the captain of the ODI squad, and has a hat-trick to her name. She has been a part of the Women’s Big Bash League through an ICC rookie program. The rookie with a decade of experience is batting against Goswami.
Her team are different too. They lost to Sri Lanka in their opening game, coming 2nd in what most considered the battle of the minnows. But then they beat Pakistan for the first time in their history, so their bats and spikes are humming with confidence. But against Pakistan, they chased 95. Here, against India, they are chasing 142.
It could have been much worse, had it not been for some luck, pluck, and Ahmed’s leg spin.
The luck comes when Mithali Raj, who has more career runs than all of Bangladesh combined, is run out by a straight drive her partner hit at the stumps and the bowler gets a hand to. The pluck comes when Bangladesh hang in after Harmanpreet Kaur adds 50 runs with Deepti Sharma, setting India up for 150+ after three early blows. Then Ahmed comes into the attack, the last bowler to be introduced. The left handed Deepti fancies her chances against leg spin, and hits two boundaries. But in the same over, the 16th, Ahmed dismisses Harmanpreet, caught at deep square leg trying to sweep.
Her next ball, an over apart, brings Deepti’s wicket, and suddenly she’s is on a hat-trick. She gets the third wicket, but a couple of balls late. No matter. India have gone from 120 for 3 to 123 for 6. They end with 134 for 7, with Ahmed adding a run out at the end. Bangladesh concede only 21 in the last four overs.
With the bat, Bangladesh do their job as if they are in a supermarket ticking items off their shopping list: Use the pace on the ball, check. Make use of the powerplay, check. On the last ball of the sixth over, Shamima Sultan falls for 33 off 23, and Bangladesh have taken 45 runs from the powerplay for the loss of the openers. By the halfway mark, they have lost another, and have 67 on the board. 75 runs needed off the last 60 balls, with two experienced rookies at the crease: Fargana Hoque, and Ahmed herself.
This is where the minnows will panic, you think. This is where they will scatter when they see the shark. After all, this is a team that didn’t get to play a single T20 in 2017, and played just two ODI series in that entire year. This is a team that didn’t qualify for the ICC women’s World Cup, a tournament where their opponents reached the final. This is a team that sits just outside the the top eight, and so doesn’t get an assured number of international games through the ICC Women’s Championship. This is a team whose star player reportedly earns a salary of 30,000 BDT a month.
That’s less than three lakh Indian rupees a year. If she was an Indian, she wouldn’t even have to pay income tax. In yet another way, she wouldn’t exist.
On the other hand, India are the playground bullies of the Asian region. This is where they can experiment, which perhaps explains Jemimah Rodrigues’ baffling absence from the XI. India are undefeated in Asia Cups, across two formats, six tournaments and 14 years. Sri Lanka challenged before fading, then Pakistan tried hard and came close. But Bangladesh were never in the picture, despite being a part of the tournament since 2008. They had never won a T20I against India, and they had never scored more than 137 batting second. Their chase of 95 against Pakistan a game earlier was their highest successful chase ever.
So it is a matter of one wicket, India think. It is a matter of keeping the pressure on, and waiting for the mistake to come. Playing with nothing to lose is fine, but keeping calm when you start to believe, that’s where Bangladesh would lose it.
Except they don’t. It’s like they are playing with cheat codes. Maybe they are.
Bangladesh’s coach is Anju Jain. She played for India from 1995 to 2005. She has seen it all in Indian cricket, from all the vantage points: a wicketkeeper, opening bat, captain, selector and even national team coach. As a keeper who opened the batting, she was so good that 13 years after her retirement, a satisfactory replacement still doesn’t exist.
The Asia Cup is Jain’s first assignment with Bangladesh, her first assignment with any country outside India. Assisting her is Devieka Palshikaar, who played for India around the same time Bangladesh started playing international cricket. Further back in the back-room is Anuja Dalvi, the team physiotherapist, often seen at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore.
Jain has been able to build on the work put in by David Capel, former England international, who was Bangladesh’s coach before her. Besides insights about their opponents, clarity about her player’s roles and their strengths is what she has conveyed in the month she has been in charge. Importantly, she’s given her players a free hand, the leeway to make mistakes.
Inside info is one thing. Using it is another. Hoque and Ahmed take that free hand and turn it into a fist, punishing India at the back end. They take 18 runs off the 15th over, 12 off the 17th, and 10 off the 18th. They have the leeway but make no mistakes. Or they make no mistakes because they have the leeway. Hoque notches up her 1st T20I fifty, and Ahmed is not out on 42 as the winning runs are struck. Their partnership is worth 93.
A decade ago, Bangladesh were an unofficial team. A decade ago, they didn’t exist. Now, Goswami has the ball in hand, and Rumana Ahmed is facing. Four balls later, history is made again, and the only thing that doesn’t exist is India’s unbeaten record.
This Asia Cup is wide open.