Bangladesh v Sri Lanka, Asia Cup, Mirpur March 19, 2012

Time for Bangladesh to get used to crunch games

How does a team that has for years played with low expectations approach a must-win game? Do they hide behind their underdog status, or prove they can deal with pressure?

If you ask a cricket fan in Bangladesh what he thinks of the national team, you will get a reaction of either adoration or exasperation, and very little in between. At the moment, with the team facing the rare prospect of reaching a tournament final, the dominant sentiment among Bangladesh fans is one of love for their cricketers. Even if they are disappointed, it will probably not be for long. Hope is in ample supply in Bangladesh.

The bar of expectation is habitually pretty low for the average Bangladesh fan. He does not buy a ticket expecting to see the home team win. He goes to the stadium to be part of the team's driving force, perhaps subconsciously hoping that he can make a difference to the outcome. Hope, in a sense, has been the essence of Bangladesh cricket.

There has been some change to that ethos lately. There are a few more critics of the Bangladesh cricket team now, within the country and among the millions of Bangladeshis spread across the world. The fact that the team has had good days more regularly than in the past has made people question why they are bad on other days. Criticism in Bangladesh cricket was reserved for Mohammad Ashraful between 2002 and 2008, when it was hard to find something to lament about after Bangladesh's many losses other than the failures of their most-talented batsman. In general, though, the feeling was more one of resignation rather than anger towards the team.

Bangladesh still lose regularly but the number of ticks in the "won" column has been steadily rising, though the incline is not as steep in matches against the higher-ranked sides. Their recent successes are due, in large part, to the presence of a world-class allrounder in their side, who wins them a lot of games and has been the team's most consistent batsman and best bowler over the past three years. They also have an opener who succeeds more than he fails, a captain who is growing in stature as a matchwinner, a set of pace bowlers who are inspired by a man roundly applauded as the bravest cricketer in the country, spinners aplenty, and a bunch of other batsmen who can, at least at times, look like they belong at the top level.

On Tuesday, these players will face a situation they have hitherto seldom been in. It is not often that Bangladesh play a must-win game with an eye on a tournament final, and it is the rarity of the situation that will perhaps increase expectations as they try to beat Sri Lanka to pip India to a place in the Asia Cup final. The only other time they made a tournament final was when they beat Sri Lanka to meet them in the final of a tri-nation tournament in Bangladesh, in January 2009.

Logic suggests that Bangladesh will start the match as underdogs. They have rarely been able to string together consecutive wins against top sides, with the 4-0 drubbing of New Zealand at home in the October 2010 ODI series a notable exception. That apart, a victory against a major team seems to be just an annual occurrence. So, an India-Pakistan final, with Bangladesh bowing out after a big defeat, is the most widely predicted result of Tuesday's game. In a sense, Bangladesh are once again the beneficiaries of low expectations and hence should not feel too much pressure.

However, the scenario can also be looked at in a different light. Bangladesh will hope that the pressure of a must-win match is something they will experience more frequently in the coming years. They will hope that, given the talent in the country, they will soon be expected to beat top teams, rather than just be given an outside chance. Perhaps this match against Sri Lanka is an opportunity for young players to experience some of that pressure. It is with that backdrop that Bangladesh's reaction to the must-win situation is eagerly anticipated. Will they come out thinking they have to win, or just hoping to?

The difference between an average team and a good one, it is often said, is than an average team does not know how to close the deal when they are near a win because they are not used to winning. There are already several individuals in the Bangladesh dressing room who believe they can win. With the inspiring performance against India, after the off-field chaos before the tournament, spurring them on, this is a match in which they can prove they can handle a pressure situation. A win in a crucial game like this will teach them far more than the annual upset.

Edited by Dustin Silgardo

Mohammad Isam is senior sports reporter at the Daily Star in Dhaka