About a fortnight ago, when the Asia Cup began, it was considered sort of a three-match bilateral series between India and Pakistan at a neutral venue, with a few ‘practice matches’ against Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh thrown in. The pedigree of India and Pakistan as cricket nations made them the elite teams in the tournament, towering over the so-called also-rans.
Pakistan had beaten India in the Champions Trophy final last year and were a team on the rise under Sarfraz Ahmed and Mickey Arthur. India have lived up to their favourites tag, winning four of their five matches – the Afghanistan game was a tie – in seven days to reach the final. Pakistan turned out to be a letdown. So, in the Asia Cup final in the UAE on a Friday, they won’t be India’s rivals. Bangladesh trumped them by winning the virtual semifinal by 37 runs in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
Requests galore for tickets is one of the occupational hazards that almost every sports reporter faces. They come thick and fast, well in advance, from familiar faces and unknowns, when India and Pakistan could be the potential finalists of a tournament. After Pakistan’s loss on Wednesday, there’s suddenly quietude, but make no mistake, the final is not going to be a lop-sided affair, support base-wise. Dubai hosts a sizable Bangladeshi community, plying their trades in different sectors. And Bangladeshi cricket fans can really magnify the noise level. Bangladesh cricket, in fact, thrives on a spontaneous overflow of emotions, both on and off the field. During a close contest, their cricketers are usually pretty animated on the field, like they were against Pakistan on Wednesday. Every Pakistan wicket spurred their adrenaline rush. In the stands, their fans almost went berserk.
Mushfiqur Rahim was their star performer, with a fantastic 99 off 116 balls. He is also the tournament’s second-highest run-getter so far, with 297 to his tally. And this was what he had to say post-match on Wednesday: “Once you step onto the Warfield, you don’t look back. There are no half-measures. You either kill or get killed.” When one of the most senior players in the team resorts to excess, it would be an exercise in futility to try and convince any Bangladesh fan that cricket is only a sport and has nothing to do with life and death. By the way, Rahim had trolled India’s World T20 semifinal defeat to West Indies two years ago. “Happiness is this….!!! #ha ha ha..!!!! India lost in the semifinal,” he had tweeted while attaching a picture of MS Dhoni with the post. He deleted it later.
The acrimony basically stemmed from the 2015 World Cup quarterfinal, when Bangladesh felt they were done in by unfair umpiring. Irrespective of India’s victory margin, 109 runs, Bangladesh smarted over Rohit Sharma’s no-ball reprieve off Rubel Hossain, when the opener was batting on 90. It was a marginal decision and the benefit of doubt went to the batsman. But Bangladesh had little time for perspective. Even their government minister, Mustafa Kamal, resigned as ICC president, alleging Indian bias. Bangladesh had beaten India at the 2007 World Cup, but since the quarterfinal at the MCG three years back, they have started considering themselves as India’s worthy opponents. Just months after that match, India suffered its first ever ODI series loss to Bangladesh.
There’s no denying that Bangladesh have improved a lot in white-ball cricket. They are in the Asia Cup final instead of Pakistan because they played better cricket than the fancied Asian giants. During their win over Pakistan, Mashrafe Mortaza and company showed the ‘big team’ mentality. That they missed their two-star players, Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan due to injuries, made their victory even more credible. Bangladesh showed character, with a depleted side, to bounce back from their defeat against Afghanistan in a group league match.
“Actions are stronger than words. They have gotten better and they are showing it through their performances. They have experienced players. They know their game. They know the strategies well and how to play under pressure. They don’t have the dilemma and pressure of playing against a big team, which is very good for cricket. Even the way Hong Kong played against us, you have to appreciate those teams,” India’s vice-captain Shikhar Dhawan said on match eve, adding: “Everyone thought it was India-Pakistan in the final, but Bangladesh won a great match last night. We can’t take them lightly just because Pakistan is a bigger team. Bangladesh is playing better cricket. There’s a difference between a team on paper and who is doing good on the field, that’s how I see.”
Bangladesh, however, have had a tendency to choke against India. In the 2016 World T20 fixture at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, with two runs to get off three balls, they lost three wickets in three deliveries to lose the match by one run. More recently, in the Nidahas Trophy final in Colombo earlier this year, they gave away 35 runs in the last two overs to go down, when victory was there for the taking.
Dhawan, however, preferred to see the glass half-full from Bangladesh’s perspective. “Sometimes reaching finals is a big thing. I look at it differently. Hopefully, we win tomorrow, (but) we will see them crossing that barrier also (in the near future). Things can change anytime. That’s how I see it.” In 2016, Bangladesh played the Asia Cup final – in T20 format – against India. They lost in their backyard. This time, they have reached the title round again, offering promise that they can change the Asian cricketing hierarchy in limited-over formats.
India, however, would be back to full strength and will pose a completely different challenge. They will also carry the confidence of steamrolling Bangladesh during their Super Four stage match here. Cricket’s glorious uncertainties notwithstanding, the defending champions need to have a bad day at the office for Bangladesh to alter the sequence.
“To me, the victory was achieved the day Tamim batted with a broken wrist (in the first match against Sri Lanka). I don’t play cricket to win silverware, but winning a trophy is important for Bangladesh cricket. We are still confused by our top order. At least 260-270 is needed to put India under pressure. Then again, India are a far better team,” Bangladesh captain Mashrafe Mortaza said.
Rohit Sharma: Pulling away
Length, no matter: Right from his early days, Rohit has been an instinctive puller. Over the years, he has added different layers to it. Like for instance, he has added a highly profitable pick-up pull, where he just picks even good-length deliveries over the square-leg fence. He just gauges the length, covers the line and glides the ball, sometimes even without shifting his weight on to the back foot, to where he wishes to. Like the best of his strokes, it’s all about timing and placement.
All about balance: The most noticeable aspect (and the reason he’s so successful) about his pulls is his balance. He doesn’t overbalance, his head is rock steady and he meets the ball right under the eyes. According to the line, he shuffles slightly across to make room and lifts the front leg a little so that it doesn’t obstruct his bat swing. The back leg is slightly bent, providing him the base for executing the shot. As importantly, he doesn’t try to over-hit the ball, or reach for it, which means the stroke is unpremeditated.
Magic of the wrists: The loose wrists help him with placement. The top hand remains static, gives the stability, while he twirls the bottom hand to whip the ball, which generates the requisite elevation and momentum, besides making the optimal use of the bowlers’ pace. When hitting in front of square, or through mid-wicket, he drops the wrists. Also, the back-lift is minimal. There’s no need for it, for the wrists more than compensate for it.