Bangladesh v Pakistan, Asia Cup final, Mirpur March 21, 2012

The rise of the underdog

In a tournament forever dominated by India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Bangladesh's rise is remarkable and was almost unthinkable until their win against India last Friday

The freedom of being an underdog has been Bangladesh's prerogative for a very long time and it will be no different on Thursday when they play second fiddle to Pakistan in the Asia Cup final, their first-ever appearance at such a stage of a major international cricket event. Any team that has a 1-29 overall record against the other will start on the back-foot; in the recent series between the two sides, Pakistan dominated wholly, winning everything and giving the home side a sniff only in the dead-rubber ODI. But this contest now has a new meaning, with a more prestigious trophy on the line.

The most interesting development of the past two weeks has been the hosts' mentality of winning and pushing till the last ball and it will be no different on Thursday. One wouldn't be surprised to learn that Misbah-Ul-Haq's men have competition as far as confidence is concerned.

The fact that there is life left in the Bangladesh team after Shakib Al Hasan and Tamim Iqbal is testament of the new-found confidence. Mushfiqur Rahim, Nasir Hossain and Mahmudullah have now finished games that were set up by Tamim and Shakib during important chases while the bowling has been well handled by Mashrafe Mortaza and Abdur Razzak, senior men who are always one step away from being vanquished.

The change in attitude apparently began after the defeat to Pakistan in the opening game when they all sat together in the dressing room and discussed how they could cross the final hurdle and be the first to touch the tape. The captain took the lead, in the game against India, while Nasir fulfilled his wish of hitting the winning runs against Sri Lanka.

"I wanted to finish it off with one big blow, but then I thought about the previous games and took control of my emotions," Nasir told ESPNcricinfo. "Somehow I managed to keep my cool and get that ball past the fielder [at mid-on]. I don't know how I managed to play that shot but I just got it done."

"It is not as if I have never experienced winning. With BKSP I have always won, be it tournaments or leagues, but with the Bangladesh team it is quite different. It means a lot more, but I approach all of it in the same vein. I try to stay calm in tough situations."

Anamul Haque has had very little to do in this tournament as the senior batsmen have done their job. But he has enjoyed his time sitting in the dugout, soaking in the atmosphere between dashes to the centre of the Shere Bangla stadium. During the Pakistan game, he apparently thought up a Bangla headline for the next day: "The arrival of Bijoy (his nickname) brings bijoy (victory) to the country." "We didn't win that game so I chucked the idea," Haque said.

The team has also been kept grounded by the William Wallace [Mel Gibson's character in Braveheart] of Bangladesh cricket, Mortaza [he is sometimes called Braveheart]. The spearhead has not only recovered from yet another career-threatening knee injury, he has also kept it tight with the ball despite the loss of pace. His adjustment has been superb and inspiring for the rest of the team who have been subconsciously awaiting his return.

Bangladesh have so far made it to two finals of note in the past 15 years. The first was its historic entry into the 1999 World Cup through the triumph in the 1997 ICC Trophy. That win was the first stepping stone for the country's game and it has not looked back since, though appearances in finals haven't been forthcoming. The other final was the one against Sri Lanka in the January 2009 tri-series where they narrowly lost by two wickets.

The Asia Cup campaign has been magical and hence the underdog claim. In a tournament forever dominated by India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Bangladesh's rise is remarkable and was almost unthinkable until their win against India last Friday.

And what a bounce-back it has been for Bangladesh. After the team selection mess and the largely negative undertones over the past year, to end an international season on such a note makes one wonder how difficult life would have been for Bangladeshis without this cricket team.

To borrow that line from Moneyball, how can you not be romantic about Bangladesh cricket?

Edited by Abhishek Purohit

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