Snatching away a slice of history
It's easy being a neutral. But you have to feel for Bangladesh, you really do. April 13, 2006 could so easily have been a Kennedy day (where were you?) but maybe it will still be remembered. Until at least, that first win against established opponents comes along which may not be as far away as many think.
It's tempting to say a terrific contest should be celebrated and why not? Five absorbing days of battle, three wildly contrasting hundreds, some fine spin bowling (though not from whom you would necessarily expect) underpinned throughout by what appeared on paper, a serious underdog mismatch. It's even more tempting to celebrate a terrific Bangladeshi contribution to a five-day contest. The only other time they did so against an established opponent was in Multan in 2003 and though they pushed even closer there, if we're being anal, that match ended in four days and Pakistan was a weaker opponent. And in the ongoing context of their status being questioned repeatedly, this performance warrants due acknowledgement.
Even if we accept that Australia were tired - this was their 11th Test since October - five days ago nobody expected them to nervously chase just under a hundred on the last day with five wickets in hand. Five days ago, most expected the last day to be a day off. In this context alone, the performance is remarkable. But while everyone celebrates, Bangladesh might choose some serious contemplation instead. Should Bangladesh be happy they pushed Australia so close? Or should they grumble about having missed the opportunity to win it?
Their second-innings collapse - after Dav Whatmore had said he was hoping they wouldn't do just that - will gnaw at them. Habibul Bashar has already repented his sin of a dismissal and if they were smart, then Aftab Ahmed, Rajin Saleh, Mohammad Rafique and Khaled Mashud, would follow suit. More than just a hundred runs separates chasing 300-plus and 400-plus.
And though Steve Waugh claimed he never told nobody about dropping World Cups, surely his successor Ricky Ponting could have told Mashrafe Mortaza that he had just dropped history through his fingers. Australia needed 24 when Ponting miscued a pull with only Stuart Clark and MacGill to come. And Mohammad Rafique might curse the pitch for offering too much spin when he beat Ponting's outside edge. Ultimately, will it be any consolation that, like Multan, they should not have lost this Test? Or solace in Ponting's words that, "They've played very, very well. For them to score 355 on the first day was a terrific effort. They certainly have come a long way." Just one of the many intriguing after-effects of this Test will be how the home side now responds in Chittagong.
Aptly and inevitably, the final word should go to the man they call Punter, but should actually call God. His importance as batsman-captain (in that order) has moved beyond vital and a 31st Test century today confirmed it. Whatever else has happened to the Australian team, whatever else may happen in coming years, Ponting seems oblivious to it with bat in hand as a ninth century in 14 Tests confirms.
You wouldn't say he's a charmer at the crease but he's no Jacques Kallis either and his jumpy energy when he starts can be endearing; once in though, he develops an impossibly austere polish to his batting, utterly efficient and dishearteningly ruthless. He pushes firmly at balls and sprints the run where others deflect or nudge with a flirt of the wrists and stroll thereafter. He's so in control at times that it appears a little mechanical, but of that run of hundreds, the two that many outside Australia will remember are innings essentially of the soul. The hundred at Old Trafford was about more than a batting prodigy, it was about more than that pull shot, or the back-foot play, or the technique. It said much about him and this hundred revealed something similar.
There was such a grimness about it, as much to do with the situation perhaps as to do with the pitch. It offered turn and bounce, not unlike some in India, where his record is poor. Runs, boundaries, shots - none were easy and the cover punch to bring up the hundred was only his tenth boundary, 235 balls and nearly six hours from when he began. For that reason it was something. He rightly refused to rate it post-match saying only, "A few of us had to put our hand up in the second innings and make sure the job was done. lt was just nice to be there at the end of the day."
If he calls up Inzamam-ul-Haq later, he will realise a matchwinning hundred against Bangladesh should be given more credit than it often is. Australia may or may not inspire the fear they did this time last year, which bodes well for Bangladesh ahead of the next Test but the same cannot be said of Ponting, which doesn't bode too well for the home side. Or in fact anyone apart from Australia.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo