Bangladesh supporters may well be waiting for someone to pinch them in order to wake them from what has so far been a dream lead-up to the 2019 World Cup. 2019 so far has been a rollercoaster ride, and the current ascent -- after the win-less tour of New Zealand in February-March -- has served to strengthen the surreal feeling. As skipper Mashrafe Bin Mortaza said during the World Cup captains’ press conference in London last Friday, it is hard to see how Bangladesh could be better prepared.
It is an indicator of the peaks and troughs that dot the development chart of a team that the seeds for the prevailing positivity were sown during the New Zealand ODIs. Shakib Al Hasan missed the tour due to injury and batting mainstays Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah Riyad did not really fire across the three matches. That opened the door for some non-regular performers and the likes of Sabbir Rahman, Mohammad Mithun and, surprisingly perhaps, pace-bowling all-rounder Mohammad Saifuddin stepped in manfully with the bat. With the ball, Mehedi Hasan Miraz did an admirable job to try and fill the hole left by Shakib. In the Tests, which Mushfiqur missed due to injury, Soumya Sarkar proved his worth with a century.
Of course, without contributions from the mainstays -- especially in the ODIs -- the aforementioned performances could not affect the results in New Zealand. But the silver lining of the dark tour was that Mushfiqur, Mahmudullah and Tamim -- who along with Mashrafe and Shakib make up Bangladesh’s Big Five -- would soon turn the corner and turn in match-turning displays. With that assumption, if the less experienced players could continue their form, well, that would be the dream heading into the World Cup.
That has happily been the case in Ireland, where Bangladesh won their maiden multi-team ODI trophy. By the time Mosaddek Hossain hit an unbeaten 24-ball 52 to deliver a win in the final against West Indies, there did not seem to be a weak spot in Bangladesh’s 15-member squad. Soumya Sarkar hit fifties in each of the three innings he played opening alongside Tamim, Liton Das came in and hit a fifty in the only opportunity he got to open the innings and uncapped pacer Abu Jayed -- along with an underperforming Mosaddek, the only surprise in the World Cup squad -- took a five-for in only his second match.
The dream scenario is that in less than a month, talk has gone from the importance of Bangladesh’s Big Five -- Mashrafe, Shakib, Tamim, Mushfiqur and Mahmudullah -- to the whole squad. It should be remembered, however, that against a top-notch team like New Zealand, without the big players firing -- and pacer Mustafizur Rahman should also be counted as a big player in waiting -- Bangladesh managed to be just about competitive, scoring more than 220 each time but only to be handily beaten each time.
That, and the warm-up defeat against India on Tuesday -- regardless of whether their bowling was characterised more by experimentation than a winning purpose -- is a reminder that above all, the Tigers need the Big Five to perform when playing the biggest teams. They will play a big team in South Africa when they open their campaign and that will continue when they play New Zealand on June 5 and England on June 8. Skipper Mashrafe often talks about the importance of starting well and the Tigers will have their jobs cut out to start well against the aforementioned opposition, especially as they would have to win at least five of their nine matches to have a realistic chance of making the semifinals.
It will therefore be imperative for Tamim Iqbal to play his role to perfection -- anchoring the innings till overs 30 or, better yet, 40, while his likely opening partner provides ballast at the start. The ideal template would be what they did in the West Indies roughly a year ago -- Tamim and Shakib building the base with a big first-innings partnership and then Mushfiqur and Mahmudullah, with help from the likes of Mohammad Mithun and either one of Sabbir Rahman or Mosaddek Hossain, finishing things off in a flurry.
On the bowling side, skipper Mashrafe and Shakib can always be relied upon to keep things tight and incisive. It is fortunate that Mustafizur looked like he was back to his best against India. Mehedi Hasan Miraz has proven to be a perfect foil for Shakib and Saifuddin an able death overs bowler. Even if one of Mustafizur or Saifuddin were to lose form, a dependable Rubel Hossain would be waiting in the wings -- his performance against India may even place him in the playing eleven.
It has always been said that Bangladesh have no such match-winners as Virat Kohli, Steven Smith, Chris Gayle or Andre Russell. But the team’s strength has been that when they get it together, their performance as a unit enable them to beat the best. They are ranked seventh in the world, so even with all their recent successes should not be expected to bring home the trophy. But by being in lockstep for the past month, they have ensured that the millions of fans back home can dream. Now it is left to see whether they can make it three months in lockstep.