Featured image:

Pacer Taskin Ahmed celebrates the dismissal of an English batsman

© bdnews24.com/muhammad mostafigur rahman

Whether high on ecstatic wins or low on crushing losses, the story of Bangladesh cricket in 2016 never lacked excitement

What a year it was for Bangladesh cricket! A year when the team finally found its place in the regal arena, a year when they continued their newfound prowess on the field and a year when emerging Bangladeshi stars became the centre of the cricketing universe again.

Let us start at the beginning. It was a windy, cold January when our African friends visited the Tigers’ den. Zimbabwe arrived at a time when things were looking ominous for Bangladesh in the shorter formats. The Zimbabweans lost the ODI series 3-0 in November. The T20 series that followed was fought to a stalemate at one win apiece.

In a couple of months’ time both teams were at it again, this time solely for T20s. For the home team the series was a warm-up before playing the Asia Cup and World T20s. For Zimbabwe it was another opportunity to rise above their recent predicament.

The four-match series began as expected, with Bangladesh winning the first two encounters convincingly. The fans were eagerly awaiting another clean sweep, but Zimbabwe turned the tables in the third match winning by 31 runs. They hung onto that momentum and won the last match, leveling the series at 2-2.

Soon after the series’ end newcomers Muktar Ali, Nurul Hasan, Mosaddek Hosain and Abu Haider donned the red and green for the first time.

The next challenge was also at home as the team faced a who’s who of Asian cricket. Bangladesh opened their T20 Asia Cup campaign with a tussle with the big boys – India. The tournament favourites played according to their reputation, sinking the hosts by 45 runs.

A frustrated Pakistani skipper Shahid Afridi during an Asia Cup tie against the Tigers.
© bdnews24.com/muhammad mostafigur rahman

But Bangladesh recovered quickly, notching emphatic wins against Sri Lanka and the UAE without breaking much sweat. Minnows UAE fell 51 short of Bangladesh’s 133 and former champions Sri Lanka looked a shadow of their former selves, when they could only manage 124 for 8 while chasing the 147 target set by the hosts.

In their last group match Bangladesh faced an old adversary – Pakistan. Much was at stake for both sides. It was make or break. Bangladesh overcame the challenge of the Pakistani pacers and came out on top courtesy of Soumya Sarkar’s run a ball 48 and a quick-fire 22 from Mahmudullah. With a five-wicket win Bangladesh reached the final.

Unfortunately, the hosts stumbled when it mattered the most. The rhythm achieved from 3 consecutive wins soon evaporated in front of a ruthless, professional performance from the Indian team.  In a rain curtailed match Bangladesh did fantastically well, piling up 120 in 15 overs. But it was no match for the likes of Dhawan, Kohli and Dhoni. India won the trophy by five wickets, with seven balls to spare.

Bangladesh did not lose heart. The winning streak gave the team a sense they were ready for the format. They did not brood on the loss and packed their bags for the big one – the World T20s.

In the World T20 Cup Bangladesh had to play the qualifiers due to their lower ranking. In an icy cold Dharamshala, the only thing hot was Tamim Iqbal’s blazing willow. He took the opposition apart with ease and seemed menacing every time he entered the arena. With a century and a half century in three matches, Tamim topped the qualifier stages with the highest run aggregate. Bangladesh absolutely blew away its competitors Oman, the Netherlands and Ireland.

On their first serious outing, however, things got complicated as Pakistan had a score to settle after their Asia Cup humiliation. With the backing of a packed crowd at the Eden Gardens, Shahid Afridi’s team battered Bangladesh all around the ground, raising a towering
201 for 5.

The chase of the mammoth total was an awkward affair. Bangladesh’s inexperience and lack of temperament in the shortest format suddenly became evident. Even a valiant Shakib Al Hasan 50 could not prevent the fall.

Adding to the misery were suspensions. Pacer Taskin Ahmed and spinner Arafat Sunny were banned from international cricket after an independent assessment found their bowling actions to be illegal. Both bowlers underwent assessments during the tournament, after being reported for suspect actions during the round-one match against the Netherlands. This call from the ICC garnered much media attention in Bangladesh and, unsurprisingly, enraged fans. But the team, under their figurehead Mashrafe Mortaza, responded with maturity and carried on with their job.

Without two of their premier bowlers, the T20 soul searching continued in the second match against the mighty Australians. Called to bat first, an unbeaten 49 from Mahmudullah and a Shakib cameo helped Bangladesh reach 156 for 5. The Australians, however, won the match by 3 wickets. The margin would never suggest that the team from sub-continent was barely holding on during the game.

Tired and weary, the team returned home for a well deserved rest. Shakib and Mustafizur stayed for the IPL. Mustafizur played a huge part in his franchise’s title stint, grabbing the Emerging Player of IPL 2016 in his debut season

After the consecutive losses Bangladesh once again faced India – a team at the peak of their abilities with pomp to match. Bangalore, however, staged one of the defining matches of the tournament. Bangladesh invited India to bat first on a difficult track. The Indians responded with a total of 146. After an innings of hard, grinding toil Bangladesh reached 145 for six with three balls to go and seemed on the verge of snatching an amazing victory. Then ‘cricket’ happened. Inexplicably, Bangladesh lost three wickets in three balls and India took the match by a single run.

It was a tough loss for Bangladesh who had too much on their plate. In their last match, where Bangladesh hoped to say goodbye to the World T20 with a memorable performance, they hit their lowest. It started well enough. Mustafizur Rahman bagged five Kiwi batsmen, and optimism soared as New Zealand were restricted to 145 for eight. But Bangladesh’s turn at the bat was haphazard, and the Tigers were bundled out for only 70, their lowest ever T20 total.

Tired and weary, the team returned home for a well deserved rest. Shakib and Mustafizur stayed for the IPL. Mustafizur played a huge part in his franchise’s title stint, grabbing the award for best young player in his debut season. The remaining Tigers had to wait a long seven months for their next international outing.

The wait ended in September as Afghanistan arrived for a three-match ODI series. Having won their previous five ODI home series, Bangladesh were the clear favorites. The hosts, however, had a real surprise on their hands. Afghanistan fought valiantly every step of the way. The first game went down to the wire but Bangladesh kept their cool and won by seven runs and Taskin Ahmed, the banned fast bowler, made his eagerly awaited return to international cricket.

The Afghans proved their worth in the second outing, beating Bangladesh by two wickets. In a low scoring affair, the guests chased down 208 with a couple of balls to spare. This defeat changed the momentum of the series. Suddenly the Tigers needed to prove all over again that the extraordinary success of the previous year wasn’t a fluke.

Tamim Iqbal answered the call and came out with a brisk innings of 118 in the third match. Bangladesh reached 279-8. The bowlers did their bit and packed Afghanistan away for 138. The hosts won by 141 runs to clinch the series 2-1, sealing it with their 100th ODI win.

The Afghanistan series was an appetizer before the biggest home series of the summer for the Tigers. After six long years, the royals of England came to Bangladesh for a full series. But much happened before the teams even took to the field. Due to security concerns talk of postponement and alternative venues began to circulate. But the Bangladesh Cricket Board showed character and firmness by sticking with their decision and hosted England with unprecedented security measures. Australia had cancelled its series a year earlier over similar security concerns. In this way the series seemed as much a challenge for the officials as it was to the players.

On Oct 7, 2016 the first ball was bowled and Bangladesh finally had its series against England. The first ODI was a glimpse of what was to be an unforgettable series of cricket. Chasing a target of 310 Bangladesh did well with the help of a ton from Imrul Kayes and reached 271 for four, needing 39 off the last 50 balls. The whole of the Sher-e-Bangla stadium awaited another famous victory. But with horror and disbelief they witnessed one of the worst collapses in recent memory as Jake Ball, the England debutant, ran through the lower order and gave England an improbable
21-run win.

The horror, however, would fade. In the second match Bangladesh bundled England off for 204 after setting them a target of 238. Skipper Mashrafe came to the party with a match winning spell and blew through the England top-order. He was awarded man of the match for scalping four wickets for 29.

© bdnews24.com/muhammad mostafigur rahman

The win meant both teams went to Chittagong with an eye on the trophy. The whole of Bangladesh eagerly awaited a seventh consecutive home win, but England proved to too strong to pull off another upset. Englishmen chased down the hosts’ total of 277 with more than two overs to spare.

The closely fought ODI series however didn’t guarantee Bangladesh could do the same in the Tests. It was a great opportunity for the hosts to answer their critics in the purest format of the game, and the Dhaka test proved that the Tigers were here to stay.

In a nerve wrecking match Bangladesh lost by only 22 runs on the fifth day. The inexperience of the lower order proved their undoing as England pounced on the weakness like true professionals. Bangladesh was in the match till the last day, chasing 286 on a rugged and torn Chittagong pitch, but the hosts were bowled out early on the last day for 263.

However, many positives emerged. The biggest discovery was the little known debutant Mehedi Hasan. The Bangladesh Under-19 skipper had shown glimpses of promise in January during the youth world cup. He made good on his first test opportunity, picking up five wickets on his debut. He took six for 80 in the first innings and was registered as the youngest Bangladeshi bowler to take five wickets on his first match.

The overall performance at Chittagong brought a much-needed sense of confidence to the team and Bangladesh were now looking to level the series in Dhaka. But what happened later shocked everyone. Bangladesh were bowled out in their second innings for 296 setting England a target of 273 runs with two days and two sessions left to be played. England having scored 244 in their first innings, went about the chase with determination and grit. At tea on the third evening the score board read: England – 100/0 in 23.0 overs (AN Cook 39, BM Duckett 56).

What happened in the last session was the stuff that dreams are made of. The visitors toppled, losing every wicket for 64 runs in 23 overs. It was miraculous to say the least. The spin duo of Shakib and Mehedi Hasan made veterans Cook, Ali and Stokes out to be novices. Shakib took four scalps and his young partner Mehedi continued laying waste, with his second six wicket haul of the match. Inevitably Mehedi was awarded man of the match and the series. His 19 scalps in the series also conjured up a record for Bangladesh. The 108 run win showed how Bangladesh had come of age in the test arena and stamped their status as the most exciting cricketing team in the world, gaining accolades from the worldwide cricketing fraternity as a Test team. Skipper Mushfiqur aptly called it one of the biggest achievements of the nations’ sporting history.

The home season ended in applause and flowers. But 2017 looms as a larger challenge for the Bangladesh team as tempting clashes against India, Sri Lanka, New Zealand line the schedule.

Rubaid Iftekhar Mahbub
is a sports writer with major Bangladeshi media outlets