On Wednesday evening in Abu Dhabi, Pakistan were 240 runs away from making sure they had a third go at defeating India at the 2018 Asia Cup. Standing in between them and that target was a bruised Bangladesh team. They had lost Tamim Iqbal, their most prolific batsman in the format, in the very first match of the tournament after he got hit by a bouncer. They had lost Shakib al Hasan — the second most prolific batsman in their history and the world’s best all-rounder in ODIs currently according to the ICC rankings — before this virtual semi-final began, due to persistent pain on his broken finger.
Right about then, you would have been forgiven for making plans this Friday for watching another India v Pakistan match in this Asia Cup. Another India v Pakistan final after that incredible game at The Oval in the 2017 Champions Trophy.
But, this Bangladesh side had other ideas.
The very fact that they had 239 runs to defend against Pakistan was a minor win for Bangladesh, considering they were tottering at 12/3 after winning the toss. Mashrafe Mortaza specifically spoke about the need to have a better start than they did against Afghanistan (when they were 87/5 after winning the toss there as well) but, turned out, he was building castles in the air. It was once again left to Mushfiqur Rahim to rebuild from the wreckage and carry his team to a fighting total. And for the second time in the tournament, with their backs against the wall, Rahim found an able ally in Mohammad Mithun and they went about consolidating their innings, stitching together a 144-run partnership. Pakistan’s fast bowlers bounced back at the end to finish strongly and ultimately restrict Bangladesh to 239.
But, not for the first time in the desert heat of UAE in this tournament, the Bangladesh middle order — best in the world at the moment, in terms of percentage of contribution to the team’s total — sweated, ran-hard, pushed themselves to their limits physically and put up a total that gave their bowlers a sniff. A window of opportunity that opened a bit wider when Mehidy Hasan and Mustafizur Rahman reduced Pakistan to 18/3. The team and the fans started believing once again.
Winning without their main man
Shakib al Hasan might not have been lighting the tournament up with his batting, but his bowling was a crucial weapon in Bangladesh’s armoury. Always has been. And without him in the team, the fifth bowler position was a concern for Bangladesh, resulting in Bangladesh making multiple changes to account for one man as Mortaza admitted at the toss.
So when Soumya Sarkar and Mahmudullah Riyadh started bowling in tandem, Pakistan would have still fancied their chances, with their two best batsmen in the tournament still around. Imam-ul-haq and Shoaib Malik were tasked with exploiting this weakness, but it took a moment of stunning athletic ability to throw a spanner in the wheels for Pakistan.
Mashrafe Mortaza is a unique cricketer. He never looks fully fit when he is on the field these days but always seems to find the extra energy in his reserve when needed. After bowling a five over spell initially, Mortaza spent most of the time with hands on his knees when the camera panned to him (or the other way round, perhaps). Kumar Sangakkara, on air, thought this was a man struggling for fitness at various moments and why not, given his history with injuries and the teams’ packed schedule in this Asia Cup.
But when Malik flicked a full ball on his pads from Rubel Hossain through midwicket — timed well, mind you — Mortaza flung himself to his wrong life, dived a couple of meters and plucked a one-handed stunner. Malik could hardly believe it and by his reaction, so could Mortaza. Pakistan’s biggest weapon in the run-chase was back in the pavilion.
And thanks to that moment of brilliance and general excellence on the field by Bangladesh fielders, Sarkar and Mahmudullah ran through their overs when Pakistan were under pressure. At the 30-over mark of Pakistan’s innings the part-timers’ combined figures read: 11 overs, 35 runs and 1 wicket. Pakistan’s require rate had crept up close to 7 runs per over.
No Shakib? No problem.
From there on, after a brief period of resistance from Imam and Asif Ali ended, Bangladesh coasted to a win, riding on Mustafizur’s four-wicket haul. There would not be a mini bilateral India-Pakistan series after all. Bangladesh has upset the pre-tournament predictions with a stunning run to the final, against all odds.
And it was not just on the night in this game against Pakistan.
Away from the field, things have not been rosy for Bangladesh cricket during this tournament. Apart from the injuries to the two main men, and Mortaza’s issues with the scheduling, selection controversies have been unfolding in the background as well. With the team suffering morale-crushing loss against Afghanistan in the group stage and India in the Super Fours, two reinforcements were flown in for the squad without Mortaza’s inputs. Heck, even the selectors weren’t consulted in selecting them. Mortaza openly spoke about how it didn’t help his side in the middle of the tournament.
And there was criticism for not picking Shakib for the big match against Pakistan with Sunil Gavaskar and Aamir Sohail blasting the decision before a ball was bowled and without fully understanding the seriousness of his injury that he has been carrying for a while now, reportedly and one that might now require surgery.
And despite all that, when it mattered the most, Mortaza and Co lifted themselves up, dusted their fatigue and niggles off, and pulled off the win against Pakistan to earn their place in the final against India.
Whether this tenacity is enough to upset Rohit Sharma’s juggernaut in the final remains to be seen. But for now, the cornered tigers have roared their way into a deserving date for a shot at Asia Cup glory.