Slow progress for Bangladesh
Bangladesh's defeat in the third ODI at Chittagong was a throwback to more vulnerable days. Their bowling began with spirit but dissolved in a flood of late strokeplay from Craig Kieswetter and Luke Wright; their batting never recovered from the early extraction of Tamim Iqbal, and became ponderous and defeatist, as they ran out of oomph long before the Powerplay. From the promising heights they touched in Dhaka, they ended up tumbling to the whitewash with scarcely a protest.
And so their search for a maiden victory over England continues unabated. The rubber now reads P11, L11 in ODIs, P4, L4 in Tests, and regardless of how inexperienced the visiting seam attack may prove to be in seven days' time, it's hard to see Bangladesh claiming anything more uplifting than a draw in either of the Chittagong and Dhaka Tests to follow. The onus in those contests will be to string together as many error-free sessions as possible, but as they proved in the course of these three contests, basic mistakes continue to undermine their progress.
Bangladesh's response to their setback in the second ODI was instructive. Instead of turning England's massive scare to their advantage, the team retreated into themselves and accepted that second-best was as much as they could aspire to. Even England, during their years as Australia's whipping boys in the 1990s and early 2000s, made a habit of swiping regular dead-rubber internationals with which to massage their egos. One last effort, coupled with a subtle dropping of their opponents' guard, often did the trick.
There was no sense of anything similar taking place today, certainly not once Kieswetter and Paul Collingwood had averted the risk of an England collapse with a third-wicket partnership of 74. Bangladesh's powerlessness was never as acute as it had been back in 2003, when Andrew Flintoff toyed with them in a trio of seven-wicket victories - the team has genuinely progressed aeons beyond that sorry state - but for the first time in the three matches, the game was over at the halfway mark of the contest.
For those who watch from afar, and see only the scorecards, Bangladesh's efforts in the past few months will prove nothing. Those who have not seen at first hand the capabilities of players such as Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan attribute their maiden series victory in the Caribbean last July to the player dispute that crippled West Indies' resources, while the excitement that followed the silencing of Virender Sehwag in January's Chittagong Test match was swiftly forgotten amidst a 113-run defeat.
The only thing that makes the wider world sit up and take notice of Bangladesh are notable victories against significant sides. And it's a sad fact that the most earth-shattering of those can be counted on the fingers of one hand - Pakistan in 1999, Australia in 2005, India and South Africa at the 2007 World Cup. There have been others in between whiles, of course, but since seeing off Zimbabwe in a one-sided series in November, Bangladesh have lost 10 ODIs, three Tests, and a crushingly one-sided Twenty20, all without reply.
"We're now very close to winning so many games against bigger teams," said Bangladesh's captain, Shakib Al Hasan. "I think we played good cricket, we came very close in the second game, but I think as long as we're improving, that is the best sign for our cricket. I think now we're making some little mistakes - we need to work on our partnerships, play well in the middle overs, and take advantage in the Powerplays - but if we work on those, we'll win some games."
In Shakib, Bangladesh have found a true star - a young man with the skill to mix it on a personal level with the big boys, and the confidence to carry the burden of a nation with equanimity. Most players who have been called to lead his country have found the pressure too intense, but on the eve of this match he cut a relaxed figure, as he loitered with his team-mates outside the old MA Aziz Stadium, to await news from within at the PCL T20 auction, Chittagong's answer to the IPL. Needless to say, he sold for a top-whack price of 4 lakh Taka ($5780), and the auctioneer even had to be corrected as he allowed the bids to escalate through the roof.
"I am very much confident that I am going alright," Shakib told Cricinfo before the match. "The team has backed me all the way, and the management has helped me also. It's almost a year now that I've been in charge, and we've always been good in our home conditions. Everywhere I go people are following me, and I'm enjoying it very much, on and off the ground."
Shakib's bowling lived up to a lofty pre-series billing, not least in the second match when his 3 for 32 was instrumental in keeping England in the mire, while his best innings of the series at Chittagong was ended by an unfortunate lbw decision that has provided Bangladesh with an ill-warranted alibi for their shortcomings. Despite the bone of contention that Andy Flower threw a local journalist on the eve of the game, when he agreed that bigger teams often get the benefit of the doubt, umpiring was not the reason for the result. And besides, Kevin Pietersen might demand a recount if that sort of blame-game is embarked upon.
Other players have made advances in this series - Tamim's scintillating hundred in the opening encounter was the sort of individual marker that deserves to linger in the collective conscience, while Imrul Kayes and Mushfiqur Rahim demonstrated the disciplines necessary to keep the Bangladeshi engine-room pumping for many years to come. But for all Shakib's protestations of progress, one can't help but thinking an opportunity has been missed this week. England aren't in town very often. And regardless of their middling strength in the world game, they are a side who fall noisily when toppled.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo. Go to http://twitter.com/miller_cricket to follow him on Twitter through the England tour of Bangladesh.