Cocky Aussie cricket fans should join the Tigers’ roar

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Bangladesh emerging as a force in cricket (AFP)

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There is a casual arrogance native to many Australian cricket fans. Ours is the most worthy side in the world, we think; our absence from the top an anomaly to be ironed out. Other cricketing nations are regarded with disdain.

India’s achievements don’t count because they can’t win in Australia (and never mind the fact that we can’t win over there).

West Indies are a twitching corpse, which those who remember the 70s and 80s still quite enjoy giving the odd sly kick.

Sri Lanka are never rated, despite making three of the last five World Cup finals. England might have beaten us once or twice lately, but nothing can wipe away the memory of Mike Atherton. Anyway, we all know they’ll implode pretty soon because they got beaten by Pakistan.

Pakistan, by the way, are a bunch of cheats. South Africa a pack of chokers. New Zealand don’t deserve a Shield side. (What happens in Hobart…)

And then there are Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, who naturally enough don’t count at all; their only use a means of discrediting the records of subcontinental players who have the temerity to be deemed rather good.

Bangladesh in particular have become a byword for cricketing incompetence – promoted too soon, never able to compete. The only references in Australia’s press are patronising or dismissive.

Ironically, though, the cliché tells us that Australians are supposed to support the underdog. I consider it our patriotic duty to get behind the Desh. And there is a lot to like about this side; a lot to relish in their progress.

Admittedly Bangladesh have historically been… well… a bit crap at international cricket. There were the endless collapses. The World Cup losses to the Aleutian Islands. Ian Bell’s average. The Jason Gillespie double hundred. (Lest we forget.)

Yet something has been happening in the last few days that – utterly unsurprisingly – has received no Australian attention at all.

Since March 11, Bangladesh have beaten the World Cup champions India, beaten the World Cup finalists Sri Lanka, and very nearly beaten the world’s current form side Pakistan. The result is that today, they’ll contest the final of the Asia Cup – something nobody would have predicted only a couple of weeks ago.

Even winning consecutive matches is something that has been rare for the Bangladesh national team. Winning consecutive matches against separate top-flight teams has never happened before. Hitting a stretch – however brief – of competitive form and confidence has given a new look to this vibrant side.

The results have not been gifted to them. After Pakistan’s openers piled on 135, Bangladesh applied the brakes and prised out 7/63. Only a late counterattack by Pakistan’s tail dragged the total up to 262.

In the chase, Bangladesh were 5/224, needing 39 from 40 balls, and should have won. It took brilliant spells from the world’s best spinner, Saeed Ajmal, and one of its best exponents of death-bowling, Umar Gul, to derail the chase.

The crucial thing, though, is that Bangladesh didn’t let this deflate them. After conceding 289 against India, they shrugged off a slow start to coolly chase it down in the last over. After strangling Sri Lanka out for 232, they wore a rain delay which cost them 10 overs and only wiped 20 runs off the chase, as well as spicing up the pitch for Sri Lanka’s pace attack. No problem. They ticked off 212 with three overs to spare.

Nor can these results be attributed to jaded teams. Two days after that loss, India monstered a chase of 330 to beat Pakistan in 48 overs. Sri Lanka were the form side of the Australian tri-series, though they managed to lose the finals. Bangladesh earned their wins.

Of course this doesn’t mean Bangladesh have suddenly become a first-rate team. It’s a high point in a graph that will rise and dip, but in the long term is on a gradual ascent. When Tamim Iqbal smashed consecutive Test centuries in England in 2010, it didn’t mean he could then do it every match. Predictably enough, he had a subsequent dip in form, but has now regained his upward arc.

Indeed, Tamim has been a big part of Bangladesh’s success in this tournament, with half centuries in all three matches, and has demonstrated a developing adaptability and complexity in his own game that mirrors that of the team.

Known previously as a see-ball hit-ball impulse player, he instead knuckled down for responsible innings of 64 from 89 balls against Pakistan, and 70 from 99 against India. Against Sri Lanka, where the reduced overs needed a positive start, he biffed 59 from 57.

Top-class all-rounder Shakib al-Hasan has been the other key, with 64, 49, and 56 to go with his 30 tidy overs and four wickets. But the real key is that these two are not doing it alone.

Nasir Hossain, Mahmudullah, Jahurul Islam, and captain-keeper Mushfiqur Rahim have all contributed 30s, 40s, and 50s with the bat. Veteran seamer Mashrafe Mortaza has returned from injury to stunning effect, while Abur Razzak makes a specialty of 10 overs, 2/40.

In Bangladesh’s early years in international cricket, there were occasional high points. There was Aminul Islam’s century in his nation’s debut Test. There was a 16-year-old Mohammad Ashraful’s century on debut. There was Ashraful’s 2004 ton against India, which inspired one of my favourite cricketing paragraphs from Rahul Bhatia.

“I felt robbed when Mohammad Ashraful walked away, head bowed… The show had ended halfway, and I wanted my money back. This kid had scored 158 in a few hours, made decent bowlers look really bad, and played as if he’d come out to set things right for Bangladeshi cricket all by himself.

“He hooked, pulled, jived, boogied, nearly killed spectators, and, to top everything, went at the follow-on mark like an enraged bull. Each time you thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, Ashraful would not only make it better, he’d also give you free ice-cream. I think the word for an innings like this is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

In the overall picture, these bright moments were anomalous. But in more recent years, the bright spots have been markers of a slow and steady upward trend in Bangladeshi cricket.

While this may be parochial, for mine the shift dates back to their defeat of Australia in Cardiff in 2005, on the back of another Ashraful hundred.

It was a win against the best side of the time in totally unfamiliar conditions, and with that, a high-water mark was set. Bangladesh had proved it could be done. It was just a matter of how to keep doing it.

Jamie Siddons’ tenure as coach from 2007 helped take great strides in professionalising the team’s outlook, as did the emergence of the tenacious and thoroughly admirable Shakib.

As captain, he often took the team on his young shoulders, leading with bat and ball while taking every result personally. Having passed the captaincy on, that burden has lightened, and he is free to be his team’s champion without also being its strategist. No man should have to be both Achilles and Odysseus.

Around Shakib, though, a core of modest Myrmidons is assembling. Where the Pakistan collapse belonged to the Bangladesh of old, the India riposte showed a refusal to regress. Bangladesh do not expect to win, but they now truly believe they can.

Yes, the Asia Cup is a big deal to them. Skipper Mushfiqur described it as “the most incredible day in our cricketing history.” But he doesn’t think it’s an accident.

“When you reach the finals of a tournament with three top teams, and you win twice and play pretty consistently, I don’t think it’s an upset. It was a well-planned and well-executed progress.”

These players have pride too. According to Tamim, when Geoff Boycott pronounced that Bangladesh should be ejected from Test cricket, “I felt very bad and could not sleep until 1am. It made me determined to do something to show him in the field.

“They are the senior cricketers whom we respect. We expect them to respect us as well. We are a developing team and we really deserve some support.”

The next day, at Lord’s, Tamim crashed 103 from 100 balls. One more blip on the graph, one more hopeful step. The results against India and Sri Lanka are another, and another. Contesting the final is yet one more. And most important of all is the spirit in which they have got there.

Whether or not they win today doesn’t matter. There is still a whole lot to like about Bangladesh.

Perhaps it’s time we started to give them a bit of respect.

Follow Geoff on Twitter: @GeoffLemonSport

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