When Bangladesh take on India in the Asia Cup final in Dubai today, it will be a battle between two sides who have come to the title clash through highly contrasting routes and with widely divergent levels of confidence.
The match will start at 5:30pm (Bangladesh time) at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium.
India had confirmed their place in the final by beating Pakistan by nine wickets on Sunday, the same day that Bangladesh had just managed to stay in contention with a three-run win over Afghanistan. India then rested their best players -- including captain Rohit Sharma and vice-captain Shikhar Dhawan -- for their last Super Four match against Afghanistan, who were inspired by leg-spinner Rashid Khan into forcing a thrilling tie against the world's top-ranked ODI team on Tuesday.
The following day, Bangladesh woke to the news that ace all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan would follow opener and highest run-scorer Tamim Iqbal out of the tournament, but still rallied to beat two-time champions Pakistan by 37 runs in Abu Dhabi.
While that meant that Bangladesh made the final for the third time in the last four editions, it also meant that they would have one less day than the more-fancied India to recuperate after toiling in heat that they had never played in as a team.
There is also a contrast between the respective strengths of the sides. Bangladesh have routinely lost two wickets inside the first 10 overs and have played out the 50 overs only once in five matches. Meanwhile India have only lost more than three wickets on the two occasions when they played at less than full strength -- against Hong Kong in their first match when they lost seven wickets for 285 and against Afghanistan, when they were bowled out for 252.
“It was difficult [winning against Pakistan] with performers like Shakib and Tamim not playing,” said Bangladesh skipper Mashrafe Bin Mortaza at the pre-final press conference yesterday. “The good thing that the boys have done is that they did not given up, although we lost to Afghanistan in the group stage and again against India [exactly a week before the final], but still they fought back.
“There are some concerns with our batting, but Mushfiqur [Rahim, the second-highest scorer in the tournament with 297 runs] is in great form. [Mohammad] Mithun is playing well, [Mahmudullah] Riyad also batted well. If our top order can click it will be fine. But again I think that India are a far better team -- number one in the world. They came here as favourites, but you never know, anything can happen on a good day. We have to be mentally strong and fight till the end.”
While India will have a settled team, Bangladesh have not played the same team for two matches in succession throughout the tournament. The injuries have forced them to get creative, such as batting left-handed opener Imrul Kayes at six to combat Rashid's leg-spin on Sunday. There may be a change today, with left-arm spinner Nazmul Islam coming into replace batsman Mominul Haque to try and contain India's vaunted batting order.
Imrul could also slot back into the opening position, pulling Soumya down to the lower middle order. With the way things have gone, it is a fool's errand to guess their plans. Mashrafe also has an injury to his right little from when he spectacularly caught Pakistan's Shoaib Malik on Wednesday. However, there is no danger of the captain not playing in the title clash.
The crux of the battle may be in the top order because the two teams match up pretty evenly with the ball. Bangladesh have not conceded more than the 255 for seven Afghanistan scored against them last Thursday. As Mashrafe said, if it goes according to form, the top-ranked India should come out on top against the seventh-ranked Bangladesh. But if the Tigers can find the solution to the top order woes at the most opportune time, they will have performed above themselves and could conjure an unlikely result.
Bangladesh also have the invisible hand of momentum going in their favour, having won their last two matches with spirited performances.
However, it should also be remembered that they have never won a final, including a loss to India in the last Asia Cup final at home and in the Nidahas Trophy in March.