Mortaza stars as Test heads for draw
Mashrafe Mortaza played an innings that was as entertaining as it was invaluable as Bangladesh averted the follow-on, and potential disaster, after their top-order had made a mess of things. For a time it seemed that Bangladesh's bungling might just make up for the loss of nearly two full days due to rain at Chittagong, but Mortaza's spunk took them towards safety as they replied to India's first-innings 387 with 238 and then had India at 44 for 2 with one day left to play.
When the day began, half-an-hour late thanks to more rain, the task before Bangladesh should have been a relatively simple one. There was also encouraging news that Anil Kumble, suffering from high fever, would not bat and, more importantly, would be unlikely to bowl on the day. Bangladesh then furthered their cause by quickly getting rid of Zaheer Khan, and then Mahendra Singh Dhoni, forcing India to declare their innings on 387 for 8, having added just three to the overnight score.
From there on, Bangladesh's top-order needed only to bat sensibly to reach the 187 needed to avert the follow-on. But, as they have done often in the past, the leading lights chose the path of recklessness. Javed Omar can be spared the rod for he was unlucky to be given out lbw to a ball from Rudra Pratap Singh that appeared to have pitched outside leg, but the rest of the top-order have plenty to answer for.
Habibul Bashar chopped hard at his second ball and managed a duck as the thick edge flew fast and straight to Sachin Tendulkar, who snatched a good reflex catch above his left shoulder at first slip. Bangladesh's 20 for 2 was given a facelift by a 27-run third-wicket partnership between Shahriar Nafees and Rajin Saleh, but once again an error in judgment tripped the batting side up. Nafees (32) went hard at a full ball from Zaheer Khan and edged to slip, where Tendulkar took a catch tumbling to his left.
Mohammad Ashraful, obviously eschewing his natural positive game, came out of his shell briefly and fatally, gliding a short, wide ball from Rudra Pratap that was slanting away from him towards gully. Dinesh Karthik leapt to his left and snapped up an athletic catch, leaving Bangladesh at 58 for 4. Suddenly the follow-on target did not seem so attainable.
Saleh, who had been getting nicely behind the line of the ball and not attempting anything fancy, found a solid ally in Saqibul Hasan, making his debut. Saqibul was a bit more positive than his partner - striking consecutive square-drives off VRV Singh to the fence - but no less careful. It was finally an attempted defensive shot that did for him, as he stood on tip-toe and tried to keep out a climbing ball from VRV, only to see the ball head onto the stumps off the bat.
When Saleh (41) fell, finding Sourav Ganguly at point off a cut shot to a wide ball that gave Ramesh Powar his first Test victim, and Khaled Mashud was given out lbw to a full ball from VRV that might just have brushed bat on the way to pad, Bangladesh were tottering at 122 for 7. Then came the first of two partnerships - both centred around the talismanic Mortaza - that changed the complexion of the game.
Mortaza and Mohammad Rafique, both aggressive cricketers, and clearly people who have an instinctive feel for reading a game of cricket, quickly realised that hanging about wasn't going to see their team limp past the follow-on mark, even on a pitch that was still good for batting. They launched into some fearless, if occasionally chancy, hits, primarily targeting two areas - square of the wicket on the off side and straight down the ground - and added 27 at a run-a-ball. Just when it looked like they would, between them, take Bangladesh to safety, Rafique fell, smartly stumped overbalancing as he tried to heave Powar out of the ground.
Mortaza found a surprisingly useful batting companion in Shahadat Hossain, who began slowly and carefully but opened up as the follow-on target neared, jamming two boundaries through point. Hossain provided half a chance just before the follow-on was averted, when Powar almost held on to a miscue at mid-on, but the matter was settled soon after. Hossain slashed Zaheer over slip and punched the air in delight as Bangladesh forced India to bat a second time in this Test. It mattered little that he fell soon after, bowled by a Tendulkar googly, for the 31 runs he made were crucial in a 77-run ninth-wicket partnership.
Mortaza, buoyed by the fact that the follow-on had been averted, continued to stroke the ball freely, and was last dismissed, top-scoring with 79 from 91 balls with seven fours and three glorious sixes before being cleaned up by a full ball from VRV. Bangladesh had managed only 238, but it was enough to give them some breathing space.
That breathing space then turned into cause for celebration as Wasim Jaffer completed a pair for the Test, skewing an awkward pull to mid-on off Shahadat, bringing Rahul Dravid out to the middle before a run was on the board for the second time in this Test. In the first dig, Dravid had immediately stamped his class, dominating the bowlers, but that was not to be late on Monday evening. He flicked Shahadat beautifully through on, and looked on in shock as Saleh leapt full length and plucked the ball out of the air one-handed at square-leg.
At 6 for 2, leading only by 155, India momentarily found themselves in position of vulnerability, after dishing it out virtually all day. But Tendulkar, along with Karthik, ensured that no further damage was done as India rode out the day to end on 44 for 2, an overall lead of 193. One day remains, and if what has gone so far is any indication, it's likely to be either really interesting, or one spent watching puddles form in the outfield.
Anand Vasu is associate editor of Cricinfo