Mortaza in race to get fit for World T20
Mashrafe Mortaza is in a race against time to get fit ahead of Bangladesh's World T20 opener against Afghanistan on Sunday. He is recovering from a side strain sustained during the Asia Cup game against India two weeks ago.
With very few decent replacements to choose from and Bangladesh's attack already being rather one-dimensional, there will be a lot of hopes pinned on him recovering. Mortaza is not a great T20 bowler, in fact he has done poorly in the first six overs more often than not. But he provides inspiration: he is often injured but always comes across as giving his all; he is an intelligent presence among the bowlers, and a good sounding board for captain Mushfiqur Rahim.
Though Bangladesh's T20 bowling has been dismal in general, they put in an encouraging performance on their last T20 appearance, against Sri Lanka. Dew hampered the bowlers as they defended at total of 120 but Mortaza, as stand-in captain, led the attack ably, mixing up his bowlers to good effect. He gave every bowler one or two-over spells, ensuring none of the Sri Lanka batsmen settled against a particular bowler. Although Bangladesh lost off a last-ball boundary - it was also Mortaza's decision to ask Farhad Reza to bowl a bouncer on that delivery - it was the sort of game plan that looked effective for the bowling attack.
Whether Mushfiqur will take a similar approach is debatable, but he will be very happy should he have Mortaza's experience to fall back on against Afghanistan on March 16, in a match that is a potential banana-skin for the home side.
Mortaza's recovery is shaping up positively. Two days ago, he was reported to have been injected with cortisone to ease the pain. It did the job, and he underwent a fitness test on Tuesday, in front of Bangladesh's physio Vibhav Singh, who said he was improving every day. He has another fitness test in the next two days, and might also bowl a few overs in the warm-up game against UAE, in Fatullah on Wednesday.
"Today I am feeling better than before," Mortaza said on Tuesday. "I have bowled ten overs each in the last three days, in the nets. I have been feeling better than before. The pain is much less than the day I got hurt. I had a fitness test yesterday, where I bowled five overs. Today I bowled five overs at 80%."
However, should Mortaza not hit 100% in time, Bangladesh have trouble at the top of their bowling innings. Their biggest issue is that their overall best bowler, Shakib Al Hasan, is also their best bowler in the first six overs in T20s. He goes at 5.85 during these overs but because of his importance in the middle-overs, he has bowled less during the fielding restrictions than Mortaza and Abdur Razzak.
Mortaza has been Bangladesh's highest wicket-taker in Powerplay overs, but given his injury history and the resultant drop in pace, he could be in need of fielding protection even if he does play.
Al-Amin Hossain can be an option for Mushfiqur, having done well during the Powerplay overs in his only T20 international appearance. Though this is too small a sample size to label Al-Amin an early-overs specialist, he could be worth the risk as Rubel Hossain has taken two wickets and gone at 8.16 per over in seven innings bowled during the Powerplay. Offspinner Sohag Gazi could be another option, but then he has to bowl at a straighter line to both left-hand and right-hand batsmen, with very little margin to err in length too.
It is clear that the bowling form of Rubel, Razzak and Gazi will be vital in ensuring Shakib and Mortaza - should he play - get the best cover. Mahmudullah and Reza can come in handy, but they are Mushfiqur's second-choice attack. If they have to play without Mortaza, Shakib will have to be used prudently.
Of course, it would greatly help if one bowler stood up and grabbed a cluster of wickets. Mortaza feels that such a spark will be necessary at crucial moments during the World T20. "In the last five years, we haven't taken four or five-wicket hauls regularly," he said. "We have had to make do with combined performances.
"In an important moment, we need someone to click. We miss those performances. We have worked really hard in practice but for some reason it doesn't happen. It might be because of confidence or some other reason. I still believe that if we try hard, we will somehow go for it."
His situation is eerily similar to that in the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup. Then, he injured his knee in a league game a few weeks before the squad announcement deadline, and though he recovered somewhat, he was left out, much to his disappointment.
Recalling that setback, Mortaza said: "To be honest, it felt worse to miss the 2011 World Cup. It was the bigger tournament. But since the World T20s is being played in the backdrop of 200 million people's expectation, I want to play well, and give my 100%. I have my pride when I play for Bangladesh."
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. He tweets here