The morning of September 29 must have broken with some harsh light for the Bangladesh cricketers in Dubai and their loyal fans back home. It was much the same on March 23, 2012, when the Asia Cup final against Pakistan was lost in the final ball in Mirpur the night before. But as time wore on in 2012, the pain of defeat gave way to a feeling of accomplishment born from the feeling that Bangladesh cricket had finally broken through and had defeated all but one of their more celebrated neighbours before falling at the final hurdle.
On Friday night, the pain of failure at the final hurdle in the final ball -- this time against India -- haunted the cricketers and cricket lovers once again. Like 2012, this pain too shall pass but there will be a different sense of accomplishment from Asia Cup 2018.
Defeating Sri Lanka in the opener, then Afghanistan and Pakistan in must-win games may sound par for the course for the team fans have come to know since 2012. However, winning two of those matches without talismanic opener Tamim Iqbal and the one against Pakistan without both Tamim and ace all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan is not something that would have been expected. Making the final in the kind of heat they had never experienced before and doing it with setbacks that would have crippled Bangladesh sides of the past marks a new level.
To accomplish that, young players who were part of the support cast -- Liton Das and Mohammad Mithun -- and those who were leaders in waiting but often seemed to need a helping hand -- Mustafizur Rahman and Mehedi Hasan Miraz -- came to the fore. That, and the tremendous fighting spirit shown by the Tigers throughout the two-week long event -- not least in taking India's chase of 222 down to the final ball on Friday -- will be Bangladesh's biggest takeaway.
“Everyone may think about the 2012 Asia Cup final, but I see it a little differently,” Bangladesh opener Tamim had said on September 13, two days before the tournament opener against Sri Lanka in Dubai. “The 2012 Asia Cup was the tournament where we first got the belief that we could beat any team -- that we could be competitive.
“I remember that; not my four fifties or how we lost the final by two runs. I remember how we played as a team and beat teams that no one would have thought we could beat. We beat India and Sri Lanka, and lost two very competitive matches against Pakistan.”
Little did Tamim know then that it was his injury two days later, which forced him to fly out of the Asia Cup and back home, that would contribute to this tournament being remembered as the next big step for Bangladesh after 2012.
Since 2012, Bangladesh's graph has trended upward, with occasional dips. But a common feature of that rise has been the people doing the heavy lifting. Mashrafe Bin Mortaza, Shakib Al Hasan, Tamim, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah Riyad have been the five cricketers who have worked wonders for Bangladesh cricket over much of the last decade.
But this Asia Cup was a departure from the norm because the Bangladesh team do not often do well with setbacks, especially when they have to fight with those setbacks against oppositions perceived to be superior. That happened in this tournament too -- losing the last group game against Afghanistan and the first Super Four match against India in abject fashion were a function of them struggling to overcome the setbacks of losing Tamim, scheduling confusions and having to play three matches in four days in 40-plus degree heat.
The recovery, and the architects of the recovery, will be the source of inspiration for future campaigns. While it is true that there was magical captaincy from Mashrafe, he still had to rely on opener Imrul Kayes to fly in on Saturday night and score a match-winning fifty against Afghanistan on Sunday from number six, rescuing the side in partnership with Mahmudullah from 87 for five. Faced with non-performing opening pairs, Mashrafe took the wildcard decision to open with number eight batsman Mehedi in the final, but the youngster still had to show the courage to be a part of a 120-run opening stand with a sublime Liton. For his part, Liton was the one who had to repay his captain's continued faith, and he did so with a maiden century in the most important game of the tournament.
Mushfiqur was Bangladesh's best batsman in the tournament with scores of 144 in the opening game and 99 against Pakistan. In both those innings, however, Mithun was an indispensable foil with innings of 63 and 60 in century-plus partnerships that rescued Bangladesh from top-order collapses.
In each of Bangladesh's three wins in the tournament, someone other than the Big Five stepped up and took responsibility. The bowlers, led by Mashrafe, Mustafizur and Mehedi, were consistent throughout and the spirited fielding was the flag-bearer of the team's never-say-die spirit.
“The positives depend on the individuals. I think losing to India twice was something that I didn't desire. When Shakib and Tamim are back, the team will do well in the future if we can hold on to this spirit,” Mashrafe said after the match.
There will certainly be heartbroken fans who will rue another missed opportunity, another last-ball failure. But this tournament showed that the ingredients long craved for outside the Big Five are very much present and the work in progress is waiting for completion with the return of the two big stalwarts.
The takeaway from this latest heartbreak is that it will just be a matter of time before bittersweet gives way to unadulterated joy.