The most fascinating part about being an underdog is its element of surprise. They can get easily beaten on one day but can spur a surprise on the very next day with an absolute piece of brilliance. It is always the potential in them that poses a threat to the superior oppositions. A threat that the underdogs can get the better of their opponents when everything falls in place for them is quite alarming. And if they come good in a situation when there is a lot at stake for their superior opponents, it will be a huge disappointment, upset and heart-break for the big brothers and their fans. However, the victory of the underdogs will always be celebrated by majority of the people. For, we always like those fairy-tales in which a small-town guy makes it big in life.
Bangladesh played like that small town guy against New Zealand on Friday. They started as the underdogs in the match but emerged as the winners. And what made their victory so mesmerising was their fight-back each time during fielding and batting. To be honest, it was due to the sheer brilliance of two of their most experienced players in Shakib-Al-Hasan and Mahmudullah Riyad that Bangladesh could get past the finishing line. It was their innings that showed Bangladesh were not underdogs anymore, the so called ‘small town guy’ had finally made it big in life and most importantly they are on the verge of becoming one of the super-powers in world cricket soon.
The scoreboard read 33/4 in the 12th over of the Bangladeshi innings. Their top four had surrendered to the superb opening spell from Tim Southee, who had claimed three of those four wickets. Moreover, their star batsman Tamim Iqbal, who delivered scores of 128 and 95 in the previous two matches had also walked back to the pavilion for a duck. The onus was now on the duo of Shakib-Al-Hasan and Mahmudullah Riyad to lead the fight back. Both of them had their fair shares of struggle with the bat in the previous couple of matches. Shakib, on one end, had returned scores of 10 and 29 in his previous two outings whereas Mahmudullah had returned scores of six and eight in the same. In spite of their reputation as two experienced players, it didn’t look wise to rest the trust on two out-of-form players to take their side past the finishing line.
However, what followed next can be termed as one of the best run-chases of late in modern day ODI cricket as twin centuries from both of the out-of-form batsmen helped Bangladesh to a comprehensive victory. Both Shakib and Mahmudullah played like two in-form players. Both of them took their time to settle down and arrest the slide. Runs were difficult to come by as the Kiwis were bowling disciplined line and lengths. However, the duo didn’t let the pressure get on them and kept ticking the scoreboard with the occasional ones and twos. The most important part in a run chase is that there has to be at least one bowler in the opposition who should be targeted. On Friday, it turned out to be James Neesham. A six and a four hit by Mahmudullah in the 19th over off Neesham gave Bangladesh the much needed impetus in the innings. And once the momentum shifted in favor of Bangladesh, there was no looking back.
New Zealand hardly had any idea about how the partnership was shaping up. However, by the time they realized, it was too late. There was nothing extravagant tried by the two batsmen in the middle of the run chase. All they did was maintaining a steady run-flow along with those occasional boundaries. There was nothing fancy tried by either of Shakib or Mahmudullah; nor they appeared intimidating enough to win a match on their own. For, it was their mere simplicity and controlled aggression that created an illusion to New Zealand that they had kept Bangladesh under control. But little did they realize that the duo had always been one step ahead of New Zealand in the whole innings.
The thing that was more commendable about the duo was their sense of responsibility. There was no celebration from them even on reaching their fifties. A fifty would generally mean a lot to an out-of-form batsman. However, they realized that it was more important to see their team home at that moment than caring about personal milestones. So, it was time for them to settle down once again and complete the task on hand. Both of them started accelerating as the ball had stopped doing all the notorious movements that troubled the batsmen at the start of the innings. They spared no one and runs started coming thick and fast.
Soon New Zealand found themselves on the verge of exit from the tournament as both batsmen raced away into the nineties, with Bangladesh requiring 30 odd runs at a run-a-ball. Kiwi skipper Kane Williamson tried to choke them by bringing the fielders inside the circle as he wanted to restrict the singles. It was a move which should have been made much earlier. Both the batsmen had built the partnership with rotation of strike as their base. And it was their left hand-right hand combination that made things more difficult for the Kiwi bowlers.
Nevertheless, it was the last throw of dice from Williamson. For, everyone knows how Bangladesh can succumb under pressure, everyone remembers the infamous 1-run loss to India in the World T20 2016 from a winning position. Williamson wanted to force the duo to play the big shot and perish. However, both Shakib and Mahmudullah were experienced enough to wait for the right delivery to attempt the big shot. The stage was set as Shakib was batting on 99. One fine stroke could take him to a memorable century and one bad move could shatter a million Bangladeshi hopes. It was a bouncer and Shakib obliged hooking it over the fine-leg fence for a six. Thus, he brought up his century, which was unarguably the best of his career so far. Still there was no celebration, no punch in the air and no pumping of the fists whatsoever. All it boiled down to was a congratulatory hug from his partner, who had watched the master-piece being created from the other end.
Shakib was cleaned up in the very next over for 114 after hitting two back to back boundaries of Trent Boult. However, by then he had reduced the equation to 8 runs required of 20 odd balls. He left the remaining job to be completed by his partner. Mahmudullah also brought up his century a while later with a boundary. He celebrated it with a sigh of relief, a prayer to the almighty and a bow down to the pitch. It was two balls later that Mosaddek Hossain finished things off with an edgy boundary and there was Bangladesh with another knock-out punch delivered to another big team in a major ICC tournament.
Most teams that are tagged as the ‘minnows’ rely upon one or two players to deliver in every match. Their success is synonymous to the team’s success. It was appearing so for Bangladesh also as they had been completely dependent on Tamim Iqbal’s batting in the previous two matches. However, Shakib-Al-Hasan and Mahmudullah stepping up at the right time showed that Bangladesh are slowly but surely emerging as one of the top limited overs teams in world cricket. The fact that other players deliver when a team’s star player fails to deliver is the sign of a champion side and Bangladesh had shown that on Friday. They took adversity in their stride and overcame all the odds on their paths to emerge victorious.
Moreover, it was not the first time they had beaten a major team in an ICC event. They had done it earlier in 1999 World Cup against Pakistan, in 2007-World Cup against India, in 2015 against England and New Zealand being the latest of the casualties now. Moreover, they have been superb as a limited overs team post 2015 world cup winning ODI series against teams like India, Pakistan and South Africa. These facts have certainly proved one thing for sure — Bangladesh may not be champions yet but they are certainly not underdogs anymore.
(This Opinion Piece was first published on Firstpost on June 10, 2017 )