Bangladesh would love to end the ten match losing streak since the inaugural edition in 2007 even though Afghanistan has its tails up following the 32-run triumph in the Asia Cup
This is the match every Bangladeshi fan is looking forward to. This is also the match every Bangladeshi fan is quietly dreading. Welcome to the colourful world of Afghanistan cricket.
A little over a fortnight back, Afghanistan was a novelty in the cricket world. Stories abounded about the fierce determination of their players, about the hardships they had to endure in a war-torn nation with very little by way of cricketing facilities. They were the newest kids on the block – to be mollycoddled, to be looked upon with affection and a touch of admiration, to be patted and congratulated for having treaded the almost impossible path out of cricketing anonymity.
Not anymore. Not after its stunning victory over Bangladesh in the Asia Cup, a result that is the cause of such anxiety and stress in the country hosting the ICC World Twenty20.
In scarcely audible whispers, they speak here about the possibility of Bangladesh’s first match in the qualifying competition of the tournament – at Sher-e-Bangla Stadium on Sunday (March 16) – being potentially its last match, for all practical purposes. For a nation more obsessed with cricket than India is – and that is no exaggeration – that is a frightening prospect; to be ushered out of your own party at the first time of asking will be a calamity in this part of the world, but the average Bangladeshi fan is the eternal optimist and if he believes the Asia Cup result was just an aberration, he is perhaps well within his rights to do so.
This, even though Bangaldesh is on a ten-match losing streak in the competition since the inaugural edition in 2007, and even though it has lost four of its last five Twenty20 Internationals. This, even though Afghanistan has its tails up and its morale high following the 32-run triumph in the Asia Cup.
That’s not only because of optimism and a sense of supreme faith in their national side. It’s because man for man, Bangladesh is clearly the superior team, and is welcoming back three stalwarts who were missing from that Asia Cup disaster – Shakib Al Hasan, the former captain who was serving a suspension, and Tamim Iqbal and Sohag Gazi, who were both nursing injuries.
Just what Shakib brings to the table was obvious in the following game against Pakistan when he thrashed his way to an unbeaten 44 in just 16 deliveries, even if the knock wasn’t enough to prevent a three-wicket defeat in a tall-scoring encounter. Shakib also made an unbeaten 53 in the 44-run win over Ireland in a warm-up encounter on Friday, Bangladesh’s second successive victory in the practice games as opposed to one defeat and one win for Afghanistan as it rounded off their preparations for the big one.
Nepal and Hong Kong form the other two teams in Group A, and they aren’t expected to pose a serious threat to Bangladesh or Afghanistan, so this effectively translates into a knockout fixture of sorts even at this early stage of the tournament. “When you are hosting a world tournament and you want to be in the tournament and you’re afraid of getting out of it, that is the sort of pressure that is on you,” said Kabir Khan, the Afghanistan coach, as he set out the mind-games stall. “I personally think they are facing more pressure than us.”
Just the words that can rile the opposition, possibly. In many ways, Twenty20 cricket is less forgiving than the 50-over format, 120 balls per innings substantially bridging the gulf between the sides. Zimbabwe had beaten Australia convincingly in the first World T20, so an Afghanistan win over Bangladesh isn’t in the realms of the impossible, though despite its recent travails that have left Mushfiqur Rahim, the captain, hanging somewhere between exasperated and irate, it’s Bangladesh who still begin the strong favourite in its own patch.
Afghanistan’s big problem has been its batting, which has at best been patchy. It needs Mohammad Nabi, their powerful leader, and Samiullah Shenwari to score and score rapidly, while the Afghan MS – Mohammad Shahzad, both the wicketkeeper and the one with the helicopter shot – would do well to shed his diffidence of the recent past. Its bowling is almost as good as any attack going, but unless it addresses its batting woes, Afghanistan will continue to pull off the odd surprise while possessing the potential to do so much more damage.
All of Bangladesh will be hoping, indeed praying, that Sunday isn’t the day when Afghan batting attains full bloom. To lose once in their backyard, in the Asia Cup, was bad enough; another defeat, with a spot in the Super 10 of the World T20 at stake, will be calamitous for a country that has rolled out the neon lights and the red carpet for this biennial slugfest.
Bangladesh: Tamim Iqbal, Anamul Haque, Shakib Al Hasan, Mushfiqur Rahim (capt, wk), Mominul Haque, Nasir Hossain, Mahmudullah, Farhad Reza, Mashrafe Mortaza, Abdur Razzak, Rubel Hossain, Sabbir Rahman, Sohag Gazi, Al-Amin Hossain, Shamsur Rahman.
Afghanistan: Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Nawroz Mangal, Karim Sadiq, Shafiqullah, Mohammad Nabi (capt), Najibullah Zadran, Gulbadin Naib, Samiullah Shenwari, Dawlat Zadran, Shappoor Zadran, Hamza Hotak, Najeeb Tarakai, Asghar Stanikzai, Mirwais Ashraf, Aftab Alam.