Tigers against the odds
Odds will be stacked firmly and formidably against Bangladesh when they take on South Africa at the Mangaung Oval in Bloemfontein at 2:00pm (Bangladesh time) today. If the promise of a tough tour was half fulfilled by South Africa's 333-run whipping of the Tigers in the first Test in Potchefstroom, it seems to have come to full fruition even before the second Test has started as Tamim Iqbal, Bangladesh's best batsman according to a judge no less than South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis, will be missing from a batting line-up already short of confidence and lacking the reassuring presence of Shakib Al Hasan.
Bangladesh skipper Mushfiqur Rahim tried to draw courage from the last and only time in their careers that Bangladesh's top two cricketers were not part of the side -- the 2013 Test against Sri Lanka in Galle where they achieved their highest Test total and Mushfiqur notched Bangladesh's first Test double-century.
Galle may not be a bad place to look at to draw another form of inspiration. Earlier this year, Bangladesh batted and bowled horrendously to stumble to a 259-run defeat in the first Test in Galle, but came roaring back to win the second Test, coincidentally the country's 100th, in Colombo by four wickets. It was a shining example of Bangladesh turning their performance around and showing great gumption in the toughest format of the game.
But South Africa are a team much better than the currently languishing Sri Lanka and most importantly, Bloemfontein is not the subcontinent. It is a venue where Bangladesh's only match till now they were bundled out for 153 and 159 in a 2008 innings defeat.
The pitch here is likely to behave very differently from the flat track in Potchefstroom. There is grass on the wicket and according to Du Plessis, there will be much more bounce. That was proven during the practice session in the adjoining strip where Bangladesh's batsmen were missing almost as many balls as they were middling.
In the last game, Bangladesh's batting was most culpable as they threw away good starts. Mushfiqur said that the effort in this game will be to build partnerships. The bowling was poor too; Bangladesh managed just to pick up nine wickets in two innings and six of them were taken when South Africa were playing big shots and going for quick runs. Mushfiqur was harsh on his bowlers after the defeat.
“When you get nothing from the wicket, you have to go to the other options,” he said yesterday during the pre-match press conference. “If you are not getting wickets, you have to cut down the run-rate. When the ball reverses or you get the second new ball, you can go back to the attacking options. Our bowlers couldn't do it in the first Test but I am hopeful that they can do it in Bloemfontein. There will be help for them on this wicket and I think they will learn from their previous mistakes. It'd be better if they can do it quickly.”
The only positive from Tamim's injury is that it simplifies the batting selection. Bangladesh have to go with the batsmen they have left, which means Soumya Sarkar will return in place of the injured Tamim, and the two players whose places in the side have been most debated in recent times -- Soumya and Imrul Kayes -- will front up to South Africa's pacers armed with the new ball.
The bowling is not so straightforward. Off-spinner Mehedi Hasan Miraz was wicketless in Potchefstroom, and expensive in the second innings. The only thing that might save him from being replaced by left-arm spinner Taijul Islam, who had an extended session in the nets yesterday, is Mehedi's batting ability down the order.Pacer Taskin Ahmed also went wicketless. Judging by the practice session and the time given to the bowlers, Subhasish Roy is in line to make a comeback into the side. Shafiul Islam did not bowl much, less even than Taskin. So it is a toss-up between Rubel Hossain, Taskin and Shafiul. And as Shafiul took two wickets in the last Test, he may retain his place.
South Africa have injury worries too, but because of their current dominance, do not seem too bothered about it. Morne Morkel, who shot out Mominul Haque and Tamim Iqbal in the first over of the second innings in Potchefstroom, will miss the Test with a side strain.
“The big thing is the loss of Morne. You want to make sure that the venom in your attack is still the same,” said Du Plessis, who already has to do without the injured Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Chris Morris. “With Morne, Vernon and Dale there, there's an expectancy of what you're going to get. If you don't have those guys there you're not sure. It's important for us to look at how we can best balance the side but still have a strong attack.
“The challenge is, if Morne's out, do we still play three frontline seamers and an allrounder or do we look at four seamers and two allrounders? There's a lot to consider. But it's important to have a really strong attack because you want to put Bangladesh under pressure with pace.”
Either debutant Dane Paterson or Wayne Parnell will take Morkel's place, and judging by the trouble third seamer Duanne Olivier caused the Tigers in the first Test, the hosts should not have many problems on a bouncy wicket with a firebrand like Kagiso Rabada in their ranks.
As for Bangladesh, despite Mushfiqur's insistence that it is an opportunity for others to prove themselves in the absence of their two stalwarts, a draw or a respectable defeat is probably the most that can be hoped for.