It is a twist of fate that two different Asia Cups have been witness to two stages in Bangladesh's evolution. Along with evolution, of course, comes growth amid turmoil and Bangladesh have had much of both in the 2012 tournament and the ongoing one in the UAE where they will contest for the trophy against overwhelming favourites India.
In 2012, Bangladesh were rank outsiders but they surprised all pre-tournament forecasts by outclassing both Sri Lanka and India before enduring the heartbreak of losing the final by a mere two runs against Pakistan. 'So near, yet so far' was the soundtrack of heartbreak then, but years later cricketers and fans alike look back at that tournament wistfully as the point where Bangladesh cricket matured into a force to be reckoned with.
Six years later, however, it is a different evolution but it has come with the same growing pains. For long, even after their previous step up, the Tigers had been a team that could come up with stellar performances but tended to lose the plot when there were setbacks. And it was a certain kind of setback that hurt them the most: a loss of form or absence of one or more of the five cricketers who have thus far lifted Bangladesh to its greatest heights: skipper Mashrafe Bin Mortaza, Shakib Al Hasan, Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah Riyad. Incidentally, all of these cricketers were part of their first real ascension to cricketing prominence in 2012.
Now, however, the two cricketers from that bunch who have done more than any other to change perceptions and expectations of Bangladesh cricket -- Tamim and Shakib -- are out of the Asia Cup with injuries. In 2012, Shakib was the player of the series and Tamim had hit four consecutive half-centuries.
With Tamim already having flown home on September 18 with a fracture to his left hand, Shakib's absence was a shock to the team on the morning of their virtual semifinal against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Yet, just as the team had somehow found a way to win Sunday's match against Afghanistan without Tamim to stay in contention for the final, they roared into the final with a bowling and fielding performance worthy of Tigers against Pakistan to win by 37 runs around the time that Shakib was unpacking his bags in Dhaka.
“Both tournaments have their separate respect and value. In 2012 we could not win anything, we won rarely,” said Mashrafe in the pre-final press conference at the hotel yesterday, a rest day after the exertions of the Pakistan match in the searing heat. “We won against big teams on the odd day. Now we were at a stage that whenever we won big matches, our best performers were Shakib, Tamim and Mushfiqur on most occasions. Mustafizur [Rahman] too. But to come to this stage without our two best players is a big achievement. The boys can feel proud of it, but there is still one match, if they can give their best shot I hope it will be a good match.”
It was not too long ago that this was not the case. In South Africa last October Bangladesh surrendered without a whimper without Shakib in the Tests, and in the ODIs without Tamim in the last two matches. In the home tri-series final against Sri Lanka in January, they lost the plot after Shakib left the field with injury -- the same one to the left little finger that requires surgery now -- and succumbed to defeat not just in that match but in the following Test and T20I series.
Evolution, of course, retains the toughest and best bits from the past and Bangladesh have retained the toughest component in the skipper, who has inspired the team with bold decisions throughout the tournament, and the masterful Mushfiqur -- whose batting throughout has compensated for top-order failures. Regardless of who wins today, Bangladesh will be richer for having evolved into a team that can overcome the harshest setbacks and come out on top.