When Bangladesh meet Pakistan in the last Asia Cup Super Four game, it will be a virtual semifinal between two teams who have had similar paths to this point. Both have won two matches out of four so far. Bangladesh have been beset by injury problems and hounded by the type of desert heat that they have never experienced as a team, while Pakistan will have to contend with the dispiriting demolitions they suffered in two meetings against arch-rivals India.
Adding to the Tigers' problems is the fact that ace all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan is a doubtful starter for today's match because of a long-standing injury to his left little finger picked up in January this year that may be flaring up again. Team management has said that he has a 50-50 chance of playing, and that they are operating on the assumption that he will play.
The match will start at 5:30pm (Bangladesh time) at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi today.
Just on the basis of results, Bangladesh should be feeling better going into this match. They started the tournament by trouncing a quality team in Sri Lanka and then, after two big losses against the ever-impressive Afghanistan and India, bounced back to edge out the former with a spirited three-run win in their last match on Sunday. Pakistan, meanwhile have beaten Hong Kong in the group stage and just gotten across the line against Afghanistan on Friday, but their most recent outing was a morale-shattering nine-wicket loss to India on Sunday.
But Bangladesh will actually start as firm underdogs. That is not just because of the fact that -- despite winning the teams' last three matches in a whitewash at home in 2015 -- they have a 4-35 head-to-head record against the two-time champions. Even if Shakib plays today, the real disadvantage here would be that the Tigers will be without opener and highest run-scorer Tamim Iqbal, who often shapes the way the innings unfolds.
Tamim sustained a fracture to his left hand in the tournament opener and flew back home last Tuesday. In his absence, top order collapses have become a regular feature and the success Bangladesh have had so far relied on one or two batsmen standing up and making telling contributions -- not a formula that can be trusted day in, day out as their sub-200 scores against India and Afghanistan showed.
Nazmul Hossain Shanto, who replaced Tamim at the top in his debut in the group game against Afghanistan on Thursday, has managed to score just 20 runs in three innings. With the other opener Liton Das scoring 41 in the last match, Nazmul may get the axe today.
"We picked Shanto to take Tamim's place and give him an opportunity as a young man who has got a lot of talent, as a lot of Bangladeshi young batsmen have," head coach Steve Rhodes said yesterday. "And he's not quite done it yet, so his place will be looked at in selection. We'll go through the side this afternoon – [skipper] Mashrafe [Bin Mortaza], myself and the selectors – and we will be looking at all the team."
The openers' failures prompted the team management to fly in discarded national openers Imrul Kayes and Soumya Sarkar at the 11th over, and the move has already half paid off with Imrul striking a match-winning 72 from number six against Afghanistan on Sunday, less than 24 hours after flying into the UAE heat. The left-handed Imrul was played down the order to tackle Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan, and it is likely he will play the same role today as Pakistan have a leg-spinner in Shadab Khan. In that case, and if Nazmul is dropped, Soumya may come in at the opening slot to play his first ODI innings since October 2017.
There may be another change with pacer Rubel Hossain coming in place of left-arm spinner Nazmul Islam, who made his debut against Afghanistan on Sunday.
"We played Nazmul because we felt a left-arm spinner would be useful against the Afghanistan top order," Mashrafe told reporters yesterday. Bangladesh usually prefer to play with three pacers, and given Mustafizur Rahman's cramping problems against Afghanistan and also that they play spin very well, it is likely that Rubel will slot back in for Nazmul.
Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur said on Monday that Pakistan were suffering from a crisis of confidence. Their vaunted bowling attack, especially left-arm pacer Mohammad Amir, has been wicketless for the last five matches. However, the unpredictability that has been Pakistan's trademark over the years means that they may be most dangerous when they are at their most vulnerable.
It looks set to be a fascinating encounter between two flawed but talented teams battling to light up what have so far been faltering campaigns.