It is a sight every cricket fan who has watched a game on television in the last few years is familiar with. A bowler sends a delivery down, one that is perfect for the moment, the finale of a careful setup; the batsman, a touch too ambitious, takes the bait, plays a big shot and the ball goes straight up in the air and is safely held by the fielder posted in that spot for exactly this eventuality.
Broadcast cameras intersperse the onfield action with shots of the crowd, and you can actually follow the play by the loud throng in the stadium. At first, there’s an anticipatory buzz — background noise, but very much there. Bat meets ball and this turns into a throaty roar. Catch taken and a grave, hushed silence descends. This is a scene that has played out over and over when Bangladesh play their cricket at home. The stands are packed, irrespective of the opposition or the occasion, and fans are stunned whenever one of their batsmen is dismissed.
Bangladesh’s batsmen have been among cricket’s most talented – and reckless – in the recent past, and yet the image of a fan in shock, silenced by yet another dismissal, hands on head, is an oft repeated one. It’s as though the fans cannot believe their eyes, cannot fathom how one of their heroes has been dismissed by some opponent who has the temerity to lay a trap and see it through to fruition.
This is called faith.
Bangladesh’s fans, at once partisan and eccentric, with the most unreal expectations of their team, can be accused of many things, but no group of supporters anywhere in the world is as loyal to their team and unstinting in their backing, results be damned.
And damning they are. Of the 93 Tests Bangladesh have played, they have lost 71, and all of their seven wins have come against severely depleted Zimbabwe and West Indies teams. In 44 Twenty20 Internationals, a format you would think should suit their approach, Bangladesh have a win percentage of only 28, and have managed to lose to Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands and most recently even Hong Kong, in Chittagong of all places. In ODIs, however, a revolution is brewing. The faith of the fans is slowly but steadily being repaid in the most spectacular fashion.
Since November last year, Bangladesh have played four ODI series at home. Zimbabwe were expectedly blanked 5-0, and hardly anyone took notice, as you might expect. Then came Pakistan, and in Bangladesh there was a real sense that something special could happen. Of course, the rest of the world ignored this as typically misguided Bangladeshi optimism. In the first match, Bangladesh batted like senior pros, putting 329 on the board, and followed it up with an unusually disciplined effort on the field, knocking Pakistan over for 250.
Azhar Ali, who had not played an ODI in nearly two years and yet was appointed Pakistan captain for the series, was duly impressed. “The Bangladesh team has been playing the same unit for the last four or five years,” Azhar said. “In the years gone by, we always had the experience to go through difficult periods. But today we have some new guys. They are trying to make inroads. We lack a bit of experience in the team.” This is exactly the kind of explanation Bangladesh’s captains have proffered over the years, and the shoe was well and truly on the other foot as the home team went on to win the series 3-0. The suggestion that Pakistan would be thrashed by Bangladesh would have been met with derision not long ago, but nobody was laughing now.
After Pakistan were dispensed with, India beckoned and on the streets of Dhaka and the bazaars of Chittagong, ill-will ran rampant. Not long ago, the broadcasters of the World Cup had put out a series of amped up, deliberately provocative promos underpinned by a “mauka mauka” tagline. Naturally, little respect was reserved for Bangladesh in this campaign. While the Indian team had little to do with it, the distinction was not one that irate fans cared to make. As India took the field, chants of mauka mauka rang out in the stands, and the pressure was now on Bangladesh’s players to bring their A-game to the fore.
They did so at the very first instance, putting a serious 307 on the board at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur. With runs under the belt, they released from obscurity a wiry left-arm bowler answering to the name Mustafizur Rahman. While television commentators tied themselves in knots trying to pronounce his name in the heat of the action, Mustafizur ran through India’s batsmen with his deceptive changes of pace and rasping cutters. Only 46 overs later, he had five on debut, India were bundled out for 228 and Bangladesh had won by 79 runs.
“It does hurt,” said Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who had led his team to eight straight wins in a rampaging World Cup campaign that only ended in a semifinal. “But it’s not about what you have done in the past. On that particular day, how well you have played predicts the team that wins and today they played much better cricket than we did.”
Dhoni, who has always given credit where due, usually without even being asked, did not hold back. “I think the variations that they used were pretty impressive. They didn’t bowl 140 kph and a slower one of 115 kph. They mixed up the pace well and also they had more bowlers who got more bounce compared to our fast bowlers,” he said. “I felt they used the variations well. And still they knew what was the exact length that was needed to bowl and I felt that was the difference between the fast bowling units.”
If India were taken aback by the first sighting of Mustafizur, he showed that he was no one-day wonder. In the second game, Mustafizur went one better, scalping six as India were rolled over for 200 and Bangladesh sealed the three-match series 2-0. India came back with a consolation win, and again, this was a complete turning of tables. How many times have Bangladesh been blanked out, only to have to settle for a win when all was said and done and teams experimented, with the series result guaranteed?
While India may have been tired at the end of a long season, the team that next rocked up in Bangladesh had no such excuses. South Africa may have rested some players, but the team they brought still had the strength, experience and wherewithal to comfortably beat Bangladesh. Only, that’s not quite what happened. South Africa won the first game with ease, and normal service seemed to have resumed. In the second match, Bangladesh’s bowlers skittled South Africa for just 162. The batsmen then romped home in only 27.4 overs.
Mashrafe Mortaza, Bangladesh’s captain, could barely contain himself. “We used to dream of beating big teams. Now we are beating them,” He said. “After some time we will realise that as a professional team we should all have our feet on the ground. We should maintain discipline because there will be a lot of tough challenges coming up.”
Mortaza, who had flashed the victory sign to photographers after his post-match press conference, joined his team for their dressing-room rendition of Amra Korbo Joy, the Bengali version of We Shall Overcome.
The team rarely gave themselves a chance to clear their throats, but now they were making a habit of it. Mahmudullah, who made a crucial half-century in the win, called it one of his country’s greatest. Soumya Sarkar, whose coruscating 88 left South Africa looking for answers, explained why he had exploded so. “I heard from somewhere that they will stop me by bowling bouncers,” Soumya said. “I wanted to play at them, even if I got out. I wanted to get out of that mindset. I planned that no matter how fast they bowl and how much they try to bounce me, I just wanted to take them on.” This was not empty bravado, but rather self-belief, backed up by runs and wins.
With the series squared 1-1, Bangladesh found themselves in a most unusual situation. Used to being underdogs and pulling off the odd stunning upset, now they were going into a game where they were expected to beat a strong team. And they did not disappoint, another strapping bowling performance being backed up by a robust batting display, led by Soumya’s 90. South Africa was bettered 2-1, and they became the latest in Bangladesh’s strong run that began at the end of 2014.
Chandika Hathurasinghe, Bangladesh’s coach, summed it up. “I think you can see how happy I am just by looking at me. I am very, very, very happy. This is definitely a great win. Not just this series, all of them… against India, Pakistan, all of them are great wins. I won’t compare one win to the other, I have enjoyed all of them thoroughly,” he said, one of the lucky few coaches of this mercurial team who was in a position to soak in praise rather than endure diatribes. “The belief, in any walk of life, comes from how you behave over a period of time. If you are very consistent in the way you do things in life, I think people start to trust you.”
This brings us to the other typically Bangaldeshi scene at any game. While there is a packed house in the ground, twice that number mill about outside. On the streets, hawkers sell snacks and cold drinks, fans in team kit take selfies and just hang around. This is unique to Bangladesh, and in an ironic way reflective of their team. For many years, Bangladesh cricket has been an outsider at the party of world cricket. Now, they are well and truly in the middle of it.