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“I don’t have to think that we are playing India.” Mashrafe Mortaza seemed to have buried his head in sand when he was answering the question about the impact his team’s history with India will have when they step out at Edgbaston for the biggest match in their nation’s history.
For good measure though, Mortaza was repeatedly reminded by members of the passionate Bangladeshi media as he walked away from the press conference room about who his team were facing a day later, and how important it was that they beat India.
Perhaps, Bangladesh actually do wish it was England or any other team and not India. This obviously is not a slight against their credentials or their chances. They qualified ahead of Pakistan, the finalists, for the Champions Trophy and then beat a fancied New Zealand to get this far.
But when they’re up against India, it’s no longer a cricket match that they need to win. It’s more like a point they need to prove to the big brother. It’s a fight against their own insecurity that breeds from this indelible sibling rivalry that seems to play out from their perspective anyway.
Over the last couple of years, Bangladesh have developed and evolved into a top-flight ODI nation, but it’s like they don’t’ believe it till they have got the better of India in a big match on a big stage.
It’s as if they still enter a contest against India with the mind-set of being underdogs, who are there to upset the apple-cart and not just compete as equals. It’s like every match against India ends up being a throwback to the times they struggled incessantly to make the grade up.
It’s this “mental barrier” that is responsible for them falling agonizingly short of doing what they dream of, beating India. It’s the reason why Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah, two of their most experienced batsmen, couldn’t get the two runs they needed off three balls in Hardik Pandya’s final over in the World T20 in Bangalore last year.
It’s the reason why Rahim ended up celebrating prematurely—a reaction that perhaps sums up how they’ve built the rivalry up in their heads.
It’s the reason why they froze in the 2015 World Cup quarterfinal at the MCG, their biggest match ever at that point, which unfortunately is remembered more for controversy and the subsequent acrimony.
And it’s the reason why for Bangladeshi fans across the world, from the brick lanes of Chittagong to London’s Brick Lane are baying for blood in what they consider the ultimate “grudge match”, even if the captain on the eve of the semi-final insisted that it wasn’t so, and that his team was focused on not wanting to think about the failures from the past.
And it’s credit to their remarkable progress in recent times, where they have beaten nearly all-comers at home, that they go into Thursday’s match as deserved semifinalists, and one that even Virat Kohli acknowledged as being dangerous. There were some who raised an eyebrow over their presence among the so-called big boys at the Champions Trophy.
And it was apt that the same day they came back from the dead, 33/4 chasing 266 against a strong Kiwi bowling attack, to post an improbable win, the West Indies were humbled by Afghanistan at home. They have also developed a core group of players who will go down as the golden generation of Bangladesh cricket.
It’s only their repeated failures to put away the big moments against India and the consequent stigma attached to it that gives India the overwhelming edge to set up a dream final against Pakistan.
The lopsided cricketing relationship between the two countries of course dates back to the time India helped Bangladesh join the big league of Test cricket at the turn of the century. It was ironically the same year that Yuvraj Singh made his international debut. On Thursday, he will play his 300th ODI and in that period India and Bangladesh have only played in 31 ODIs against each other, only three of them bilateral contests on Indian soil.
And fans and players alike from Bangladesh have always felt slighted by how India hasn’t gone that extra yard always to help their neighbours get up the ranks quicker. It’s rarely an IPL auction where Bangladeshi fans don’t vent their frustration at their players being ignored.
Mustafizur Rahman and Shakib of course are exceptions. But now they have their own premier league, which attracts the who’s who of the T20 diaspora.
Mortaza tried his best to play down the magnitude of Thursday’s match, from saying that the pressure was if anything on India to reminding everyone that this was their first-ever semi-final and the experience would be a unique one.
He can only hope that his team show the same composure if in case they do push India to the edge like they have so often of late. And yes, probably he’s right. The best way to do it could well be to “think that it’s not India”.
Live on Star Sports: 3 pm