“You are meaning that that was an upset?” There was frustration, and a hint of anger, in captain Mashrafe Mortaza’s voice as he rebuffed the idea that Bangladesh’s defeat of South Africa should be anything other than expected.
One Bangladeshi journalist, who has followed the team for years, expanded on the sentiment. “Bangladesh need a good tournament,” he explains. “And not just one match, because their opportunity to play against the bigger nations is limited.”
For two decades Bangladesh have been perceived as the slipperiest of banana skins for opposing teams at World Cups, but never genuine contenders. That perception is out-dated. “If we played well, that was good enough for the crowd and for us,” says the world’s top-ranked all-rounder, Shakib al Hassan, of his debut World Cup in 2007. “But now, they are not satisfied with defeat to any other team.”
Bangladesh have beaten India, South Africa and Pakistan in ODI series over the last four years. They have beaten England more times than they have lost at World Cups, reached the last Champions Trophy semi-finals and have just out-muscled the West Indies in a tri-series.
And yet, the perception persists. A year ago Australia cancelled what would have been Bangladesh’s first Test tour down under since 2003, deeming it not “commercially viable”. Since the 2015 World Cup, Bangladesh have had the opportunity to play the big three of England, Australia and India just 11 times. In that same period England played Australia alone on 16 occasions.
This tournament, therefore, is less an opportunity to fell the odd big beast, and more one to preview their wares in the global shop window.
“Building up to this World Cup, we knew what sort of challenges we might face,” explains Shakib, after defeating South Africa. “So we prepared ourselves well. There are so many things to prove in this tournament, and we were up to the challenge. The boys were confident, but at the same time, they were relaxed. They knew we have the skill to beat big teams.”
An opening win was followed by a narrow loss to New Zealand but in both performances they proved a well-balanced side. In fact, the man around whom the team did once revolve is in danger of being left behind; Tamim Iqbal’s strike rate is the lowest among Bangladesh’s front-line batters this tournament. The win against South Africa was total cricket at its best: a fast start, followed by a steady accumulation and then a final flourish, succeeded by regular, and shared, wickets in the second innings.
“We have senior guys who have a lot of experience and we have a lot of belief coming from that. And then our junior guys have also performed strongly,” 21-year-old off-spinner Mehidy Hasan says. “There is good communication between our senior and junior guys. We know that we have senior guys who have already played in four or three World Cups. Whereas I have always watched the matches on TV, like in the last World Cup, and now, in this World Cup, I am part of it.”
It has been a long time in the making, culminating not in a bang, but in crucial, incremental improvements. “It has been 12 years, so our cricket has come a long way forward,” Shakib shrugs, reflecting on the time since his debut tournament. “Now, most of the time if we win, it’s not because only one or two players performed well but because we played together. When 11 players are contributing – a little, little, little – it is good for us, and we will win.”
As Bangladesh have gone about putting the various pieces to their well-rounded squad together, there was one thing missing in a game where power hitting has exploded beyond what was previously thought possible. Bangladesh were competing, but 300-plus targets remained a rarity. Between these last two World Cups, England had surpassed that mark on 38 occasions, Bangladesh just six. Enter former South Africa batter Neil McKenzie.
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“He’s amazing,” says Mortaza. “He’s helping our batters so well the last [year] he has been working with us.” McKenzie has been integral in encouraging Bangladesh’s batters to trust their own skills, innovate to find new ones and, when they do, to use them. Mosaddek Hossain, who struck five sixes in his 20-ball half century against the West Indies last month, and was explosive once more against South Africa as Bangladesh achieved their highest-ever ODI total of 330, appears to be doing just that.
A long time has passed since Bangladesh’s inaugural tournament in 1999. Behind India, their 1,343 caps at the start of this World Cup make them the second most-capped side. For someone like Shakib it has come at just the right time; last Sunday he became the fastest cricketer to achieve both 250 wickets and 5000 runs. Only five others, including Jacques Kallis and Sanath Jayasuriya, can claim to belong in the same company.
Sri Lanka won the World Cup 15 years after achieving Test status. Bangladesh, now in their 19th year as a Test nation, believe that they can too. They might not be favourites, but they have moved on, and so must our dated perceptions.
• A version of this article was originally printed in The Telegraph on 7 June 2019.