How important are the warm-up matches leading up to a big tournament? On the face of it, it’s a straight-forward question. Yes, the warm-up matches play a vital role in getting used to the conditions. Yes, they are crucial in determining the team combinations. But all said and done, it’s best to avoid reading too much into what happens in them.
Bangladesh found that out the hard way in the opening match of the Champions Trophy against England.
Just two days earlier, the Tigers were tamed by India at The Oval in their final warm-up match leading up to their return to the tournament after over a decade. It must have been a fairly humbling experience for them, getting all out for 84, after being 22 for 7 at one stage in reply to India’s 324. Fast forward to Thursday, at the same venue, Mashrafe Mortaza paid the price for over-compensating for that defeat.
On a much sunnier day compared to the overcast conditions during their match against India, Mortaza raised a few eyebrows at the toss when he revealed that his side will have eight – EIGHT – proper batsmen and just three proper bowlers. He did not want a repeat of that hammering against India. He played it safe. He decidedly placed trust on his part-time bowlers to keep the England batting line-up under check. The England batting line-up which has scored more than 300 in 25 matches since the start of 2015 – more than any other country in world cricket in that period.
As it turned out, Joe Root made sure Bangladesh’s rather impressive 305 was chased down with a minimum of fuss.
The day started well for Bangladesh. Tamim Iqbal, who has had a renaissance in his batting since 2015, led them to their highest total in tournament history. Five of his nine ODI centuries have come in the last two years and he once again showed why he’s the most important cog in Bangladesh’s batting wheel. Along with Soumya Sarkar, he made sure England do not get an early breakthrough. And once the nerves settled, he dropped anchor, and drove Bangladesh ahead with a beautifully paced century. His innings was a lesson in the art of playing with a straight bat on a pacy track. He targeted Liam Plunkett, arguably England’s best bowler on the day, he let the good balls go and punished the bad balls. He took 23 balls to score his first 10 runs but brought up his 50 off 70 balls and 100 off 124 balls – more than making up for the steady start. It was a mature, calculated innings, befitting of his seniority in the side.
With the platform set by Iqbal and Mushfiqur Rahim, captain Mortaza was right to lament that 305 was not enough. “We were 20-30 runs short” was his post-match verdict. But considering that England hardly went past third gear for the majority of their innings and still ended up winning by 8 wickets and 3 overs to spare, one cannot help but call Mortaza’s bluff on that. With the batting firepower England possess, Bangladesh were left woefully short of quality bowling options.
As it turned out, Root and Alex Hales simply refused to go after Mustafizur Rahman, irrespective of the state of the match. They knew he was Bangladesh’s most potent weapon and keeping him wicket-less more or less ensured victory for England. Root’s career-best 133, almost half of which was scored with him limping due to a cramp in his calf, was a master-class in making tough targets look easy.
Mortaza admitted post-match that the team combination must be looked at for the subsequent matches. “It was the first match and we decided to go with eight batters, but we have to think about it. The main bowlers must bowl better,” he said.
At the end of the day, Bangladesh do have positives to take from this match. This was, after all, the first time in Champions Trophy history that a target of 306 was achieved (As a side note, something tells us that record is not going to last long, however). And for all the analysis, even if Bangladesh played two more regular bowlers and even if the batsmen got those extra 20-30 runs that Mortaza wanted, the England batsmen would have, 9 times out of 10, successfully chased down.
But by not giving himself the options to restrict England after a strong batting display, Mortaza missed a trick. This defeat came against England on a sunny day at The Oval, but the seeds for it were sown on that overcast afternoon against India at the same venue.