Tight race continues between Rajshahi and Barisal
Even before the penultimate round of matches got underway, it was evident that the two-horse race between Barisal and Rajshahi would not be decided until the last week. There was added interest in this round as most of the Bangladesh internationals were turning out for the first time this season. The national selectors were keeping a close watch in what was the last chance for the players to stake their claim for the Test series against Sri Lanka. The weather, dominated by intense fog, ate up valuable playing time at Rajshahi. In the end, draws for the title contenders left hardly any gap at the top while Khulna, buoyed by the 'one-off' appearances of a couple of their internationals, played like defending champions for the first time and walloped Dhaka.
At the Rajshahi Stadium only 30.3 overs were possible on day one following a delayed start due to fog. Rajshahi's hopes of a strong beginning were quickly dashed by the Sylhet bowlers, who reduced them to 56 for 5 at stumps to justify the decision of captain Rajin Saleh to bowl first on the understandably damp wicket. Sylhet were then frustrated by Naeem Islam who initiated one of those very Rajshahi-like rearguards with 87 off 207 balls, and the mist which ruled out play on day three. Islam shared 83 for the sixth wicket and then put on 71 for the seventh wicket as Rajshahi's innings finished on 264 on day two. Sylhet were expecting to bat only once but Rajshahi had other plans. Day four was all Rajshahi as opening bowler Delwar Hossain (5 for 33) and left-arm spinner Suhrawardi Shuvo (3 for 50) shot the visitors out for 127. Without captain Mithun Ali's 57 Sylhet could have been really embarrassed. Rajshahi opener Jahurul Islam hit 53 off 44 as the home side went for quick runs and declared on 101 for 2 in 13.3 overs. Sylhet batted for 11 overs before close and reached 67 for 2.
With only a draw looking possible in the Rajshahi game visitors Barisal were in a good position to seek advantage against Chittagong at the Bir Shrestha Shahid Ruhul Amin Stadium. That wasn't to be as they lost wickets in quick succession before and after the fifth wicket partnership of 87 between Roqibul Hassan (43) and Nasir Hossain (49) to end up with 244 after winning the toss. Chittagong resumed day two on a promising 52 for 1 but were all out for a disappointing 198 as the top order gave away wickets after getting set. Bangladesh batsman Roqibul starred with 77 in the Barisal second innings as Chittagong were set a challenging 313. At stumps on day three, the match was still wide open as the hosts reached 63 for 2. The last day's play was delayed because of fog and Chittagong edged closer to an uplifting win thanks to Rezaul Karim's 128 and Tariq Ahmed's 54. It looked like a cakewalk before offspinner Nasir bowled the League's highest run-getter Faisal Hossain (39) to reduce Chittagong to 269 for 4. They then almost lost the match, losing four wickets within the next 17 runs, and were 290 for 8 when it finished.
Coach Jamie Siddons was in attendance as Khulna celebrated Shakib Al Hasan's homecoming. The game against Dhaka in Khulna was not going to affect the title fight but it was nevertheless significant as Bangladesh stars Mohammad Ashraful, Shakib, Imrul Kayes, Mehrab Hossain jnr, Shahadat Hossain, and Mahbubul Alam were all involved along with a number of Bangladesh hopefuls. Khulna batted first and a 82-run stand between opener Kayes and Saghir Hossain for the second wicket gave them a solid start. Shakib made a 54-ball 59 and captain Tushar Imran also chipped in with a half-century as Khulna made 355 at 4.65 runs an over. Medium-pacer Ziaur Rahman took the wickets of Javed Omer (0) and Marshall Ayub to leave Dhaka on 38 for 2 on day one.
There was no recovery on the second day and Ashraful's 37 was the best effort in Dhaka's 181 for 9 declared. Khulna's second innings did not have the momentum of the first and they went into day three on 146 for 5. The next morning was a Shakib show; he resumed on 34 not out and with the help of some powerful pulls and cuts and forcing drives through the off raced to 129. No. 7 Raihan Anas made 90 in Khulna's 352, a lead of 526. Saving the match was the best Dhaka could hope for but they lost Ashraful and Mehrab for ducks in successive overs to slump to 40 for 4. Javed's 76 and Mahmudullah's unbeaten 79 revived Dhaka who closed day three on 204 for 5. Mahmudullah led a lone battle as wickets tumbled around him the next morning. He reached his third ton in as many matches and finally fell for 152 to medium-pacer Robiul Islam, who is the second highest wicket-takers this season with 45. Robiul took 4 for 115 and Ziaur a five-for to bowl Dhaka out for 356.
Player of the week - Shakib Al Hasan
Shakib has been in imperious form with the ball at the highest level but was at his batting best against Dhaka in what could be his only four-dayer for Khulna this year because of his international commitments. His 59 and 129 made the difference in the match and he outshone all the other stars in the match. "The series against South Africa was very, very tough and I learned a lot there and the confidence was up. This was much easier and it is always good to have some first-class runs under the belt when you prepare for a Test series," said the 21-year-old Shakib, who is fast becoming the Bangladesh national team's key man.
Rabeed Imam is the editor of TigerCricket.com