When glory got away
For the first time in six years of Test status, Bangladesh have finally succeeded in silencing their critics. Sadly, that aim has not been achieved solely through the brilliance of their performances. After the chaotic events of the past fortnight, the world has simply been rendered speechless by what they've just seen.
Let's just do a quick recap, in case you, like countless others, saw "Australia v Bangladesh" on the billing, and assumed there'd be nothing more dramatic than a swift and bloody atonement for Sophia Gardens. Mere hours after arriving on a flight out of Jo'burg, the jet-lagged Australians were flailed for 355 runs in a single day. To put that effort into context, when England achieved a similar feat at Edgbaston last summer (they made more runs, but conceded more wickets) the nation hung out bunting that has scarcely been put away since.
In days gone by that would have been the cue for a capitulation, but no. Seizing their momentum like never before, "The Banglas" (as they suddenly became known to a rapt global audience) rampaged through a leaden-footed top-order, reducing Australia to a scarcely credible 6 for 93. The intense peril reawakened Australia's competitive instincts, with Adam Gilchrist at the forefront of the fightback, but it still took all of Ricky Ponting's know-how to keep the spinners at bay during a tense final-day run-chase.
Defeat by three wickets then, and instead of the glory of the greatest upset in history, Bangladesh had to make do with the respect and commiserations of a chastened opposition and a deflated general public. Every cricket-lover in the world hoped and believed that, after that desperately near miss, the team had finally turned the corner.
Had it all ended there, then the legacy of Australia's maiden tour of Bangladesh would have been perfectly clear. But instead, out of the blue, came a performance so freakish that it'll find itself being dissected for generations to come. Thanks to Jason Gillespie's mind-boggling 201 not out, Bangladesh's descent from the sublime to the ridiculous has been as near to vertical as is humanly possible.
That may sound like a harsh assessment, but let's put aside all sentiment, and imagine the reaction if the first and second Tests had been played the other way around. Gillespie's performance is the sort of statistical freak that the world has been dreading ever since Bangladesh's premature promotion to Test status. If someone so guarded with his opinions as Richie Benaud can have been so outspoken about their previous efforts, then it is nothing short of a miracle that the poison-pens have remained sheathed ever since.
In fact, the absence of outcry is the greatest compliment that Bangladesh has yet received as a Test nation. The general feeling after Fatullah was that their efforts deserved greater recognition, and to an Australian team still gulping in great sighs of relief, that meant playing the subsequent match absolutely on its merits. When Gillespie, a job-a-day stonewaller with limitless powers of concentration, was promoted up the order as nightwatchman, that meant doing his duty in the only way he knew how.
Imagine a genuine batsman getting into such a situation. Would he have had the nerve to take 300 balls to score his first century against such a visibly demoralised opponent? Almost certainly not - take Mike Hussey, for instance, whose 182 lasted just 203 balls all told. That's not to denigrate Gillespie's achievement, but rather to emphasise the fact that his single-mindedness matched Australia's needs of the hour.
In this series, the best of Bangladesh was showcased with the worst, in an increasingly familiar hotchpotch of emotions. "The team doesn't really know how close they came to causing a major, major upset," said Dav Whatmore, their phlegmatic and fatherly coach, afterwards. His comments imply an unworldliness about the Bangladeshis, and yet, one wonders whether, for the average national cricketer, a vague sense of bewilderment is a preferable state to full consciousness.
It must be a terrifying burden for a young and fragile team, knowing that you carry onto the pitch not only your own hopes and ambitions, but those of an entire nation of 150 million anxious and under-rewarded people. If there was a sense that the players' heads dropped too easily at crucial stages of the Test series, then it was all too eagerly mirrored by their fans on the fringes, for whom the next scapegoat is only ever one rash stroke away.
At banglacricket.com, the highly respected discussion forum, one recent thread led with a post-mortem of the series and a set of gradings for the players. The maiden centurion, Shahriar Nafees, picked up an A+ for his gutsy contributions, but his top-order colleagues, Mohammad Ashraful and Javed Omar, were both saddled with grossly unflattering Fs and demands to be dropped. To the neutral observer, their most serious crimes were that they allowed the occasion to get to them. Ashraful in particular, who scored that brilliant matchwinning century against the Aussies last summer, can't help but attract brickbats with every new failure.
Even so, it is hard not to sympathise with the nation's frustrations. All Bangladesh has ever been seeking is respect, and in this past fortnight, they've come within an ace of the most respect-worthy result of all time. If they'd produced their second innings at Chittagong in the second innings at Fatullah, Bangladesh would have won that first Test at a canter; if they'd shown the same resolve in the first innings at Chittagong as in the first innings at Fatullah, then Gillespie's double-century would have come too slowly to enable the win.
Those are the bare facts of another series when glory slipped through their fingertips. But with no more Test cricket for the next 12 months, Bangladesh can now refocus on its favourite form of the game. A solitary win in this week's three one-dayers, and all their sins will be forgiven. Even Ashraful's.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo