Confused seems to be the word for Bangladesh in their ongoing Asia Cup campaign. After a bright start on September 15 when they won the opener by 137 runs against Sri Lanka in Dubai, they now stand on the brink of possible elimination in today's Super Four encounter against a vibrant Afghanistan.
The match will begin at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi at 5:30pm (Bangladesh time), when it will be imperative that Mashrafe Bin Mortaza and Co. clear their minds and put the discontent on and off the field behind them.
After that opening win, the Tigers succumbed to a 136-run loss in their last group game against Afghanistan on Thursday, and followed it up with an equally abject loss to India in their first Super Four match the following day. Talismanic opener Tamim Iqbal's exit from the tournament with a fractured left hand sustained in that first match has put the batting in disarray as they now have two untested openers in rookie Nazmul Hossain Shanto and Liton Das, both of whom have failed to get going in the matches so far.
The Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB), in a kneejerk reaction, has sent two openers to the Asia Cup yesterday in Imrul Kayes and Soumya Sarkar, neither of whom were deemed good enough to make the original squad or considered an apt replacement for Tamim when the left-hander returned to Dhaka last Tuesday.
The move has risked sowing discord within the team as Mashrafe is known as a captain who backs the players he is given and it would not have helped matters that he was not part of the final decision to recall the two discarded openers who have failed after being given countless opportunities. That is in contrast to Liton and Nazmul, who have had three and two innings respectively as regular openers.
Vice-captain Shakib Al Hasan also seemed not to be too pleased with the development, calling the move 'unusual' yesterday.
"Actually, we put so much pressure on them in such a short time, that their chances of performing well reduces even further," Shakib said when asked about the misfiring rookies. "The people you are talking about -- the four or five of us [five seniors in Shakib, Tamim, Mahmudullah Riyad, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mashrafe] -- we were never superheroes. You may be considering our careers over the last two, three, four years. But the previous six or seven years, the cricket we have played, how well did we actually play? People start doing well only after encountering many situations and learning from them. Maybe we are not able to give them [juniors] the chance or create that situation."
After the match against India, captain Mashrafe questioned the wisdom of bringing in two new players to play a team with a bowling attack he rated even better than the one against India. Afghanistan have the best bowler in the world in leg-spinner Rashid Khan, and his is a riddle that Bangladesh have not been able to solve since being trounced 3-0 by Afghanistan in a T20I series in June.
Even with this apparent opposition from the captain and vice-captain, at least one of Soumya and Imrul are likely to play today, despite being set to arrive in the UAE just 17 hours before the match starts. It may well be that Imrul will replace Liton, who has been in and around the team longer than Nazmul and could be seen as more culpable for his failures.
Cricket operations committee chairman Akram Khan said on Friday that there is a chance that Soumya will play lower down the order. That would mean dropping Mosaddek Hossain, which is unlikely because he will also offer an extra spin option on what is likely to be a slow wicket.
"If you think of momentum, Afghanistan have obviously played better cricket in this tournament," said Shakib when asked who will be ahead in the running when the two teams face off. "I believe that we are a better team and that is how we should perform tomorrow. We have won more matches than them, won more matches against better teams and are ranked higher."
Unfortunately for Bangladesh, form is what matters in the short term, and against a high-flying Afghanistan who seem to have the measure of the Tigers, a monumental turnaround is necessary if the runners-up of the last edition are to have any chance of making the final on September 28.