For more than a decade, the Women’s Asia Cup seemed like an upgraded version of the Indian domestic circuit, only less competitive. On the domestic front, Indian Railways have a near-unbroken stranglehold, but there was always healthy competition for the runner-up spot. In the Asia Cup, India has lorded over every other team, coming into this seventh edition with a spotless record. And until now, the race to join them there was often a very predictable, two-horse affair.
Not this time though. This time, a third filly has sprinted ahead, leaving even the defending champions behind. Bangladesh have been the team of the tournament and earned their maiden final with convincing victories over both India and Pakistan in the round robin stage. For Bangladesh, it was their first-ever win against either of these countries in any format. The win against India also ended their winning streak in Asia Cups, a record they had held for more than a decade. But more than the numbers, belief would be the bigger takeaway for Bangladesh.
As a team which is ranked 9th in ODIs, Bangladesh are outside the benefit of the ICC Women’s Championship, essentially a Future Tours Program for women’s cricket (with significant advantages over the actual FTP). This means, unlike the top eight, Bangladesh aren’t assured seven tours every World Cup cycle. In 2017, they played only two series, one of which was an ICC event. Before their tour of South Africa earlier this year, their last T20I was in the last Asia Cup in 2016. But in this year, they have been like an athlete that quietly sets multiple personal bests despite not winning competitions; they made 137 last month in South Africa, their highest T20 score at the time, and then bettered that by successfully chasing 141 against India. Now, they have a chance to add some silverware to their journey.
The favourites tag has never sat more uncertainly on India, who have not stamped themselves in the tournament. Their top score was the 141 that Bangladesh chased, and even against Thailand, who don’t have international status, they scored 132 batting first. With no television broadcast of the games, it is impossible to judge whether this is par for course. Perhaps, conditions have been less than favourable for batting. Also, lower ranked teams usually provide very little pace on the ball.
Nonetheless, India have more questions than answers going into the final. With par scores in women’s T20I having risen since the rule change allowing only four fielders outside the circle after the powerplay, this tournament has been a bit of an anomaly. This will certainly not be the warm-up they would have wanted with the T20 World Cup less than six months away.
Players to watch:
While Rumana Ahmed and Fahima Khatun have taken Player of the Match awards against India and Pakistan respectively, the contributions of wicketkeeper-opener Shamima Sultana have set up both those chases. With quick 30s, she gave Bangladesh the start they needed to keep up with the required run rates. She now has three 30-plus scores in her last five T20Is, including a fifty against South Africa, and will be the wicket that the Indian new ball bowlers want. Ahmed, the star of Bangladesh’s win against India, poses a threat with both bat and her leg spin.
Though Indian captain Harmanpreet Kaur is the highest run-getter in the tournament, she has not converted her starts into innings of real substance. However, she has a reputation of starting a tournament slow and stepping up in the big matches, and her unbeaten knock of 34 against Pakistan in a virtual semi-final was a necessarily sensible innings. Chasing just 73, India were reduced to 5 for 2 before Harmanpreet saw them to safety in the company of vice-captain Smriti Mandhana, who made 38. It was Mandhana’s highest score of the tournament and she too is due for runs after a prolific home series where she scored three half-centuries in four matches.
While India have the big-game experience, Bangladesh can rely on insight from the three Indians among their staff, including coach Anju Jain and assistant coach Devika Palshikaar. They will also lean on the underdog tag to relieve pressure, but it will come down to whether or not they believe they can pull off a third win against a top team. With the final being televised, they will also have to negotiate the knowledge that many back home will be watching them. Having not played televised games regularly, this could be an important factor.
They may be a team with nothing to lose, but they certainly have a point to prove. Despite the competitive results so far, the irony is that India and Pakistan are already in the WT20, while Bangladesh will soon head to a qualifier to earn their spot.
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