How Mortaza set the tone that others must follow May 21, 2007

Top [less] orders and rearguards

In a game where Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly scored hundreds, Mashrafe Mortaza and Shahadat Hossain provided the most exciting and inspirational moments

But for Mortaza's stroke-filled 79, Bangladesh would have been in dire straits © AFP

"I had confidence in Mashrafe [Mortaza]. To me, he is the best batsman in the team," said Shahadat Hossain. "When Rajib [Hossain] was batting, I told him he could make a fifty and me a hundred," said Mortaza. The two fast men, partners with the new ball, sounded as if they had just had a hit in the park. They had had fun all right, adding 77 for the ninth wicket to avoid a follow-on that would have put them in line for an embarrassing defeat after almost two days of play had been lost to rain.

It wasn't as easy as they made it sound. When Mortaza came in, Bangladesh were 116 for 6, and two wickets later, Hossain joined him with 39 still needed to keep the follow-on at bay. But Mortaza and Hossain did what most of the top order didn't, batting with intelligence while mixing aggression and control in perfect proportions.

In a game where Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly scored hundreds, Mortaza and Hossain provided the most exciting and inspirational moments. Hossain's punch in the air after hitting the boundary that saved the follow-on got the entire crowd on their feet. His exchange with Tendulkar after having bowled bouncers at him was special too. "I do that to all batsmen; there was nothing special with Sachin. I did this to Ricky Ponting too," Hossain said later. His tail was up by then, having dismissed Wasim Jaffer and Rahul Dravid cheaply.

When Powar bowled to Mortaza, with five men on the rope - a sign of respect that one usually reserves for top-order batsmen - he batted like one. There were no half-measures; when he defended, his defence was dour; when he hit, he cleared the fielders majestically. There were no cross-batted slogs from either of the batsmen, but two straight sixes off Powar and one over midwicket off Sachin Tendulkar, which involved the picking of a googly from the hand. The running between the wickets was decisive, and if Mortaza had hit to either side of the fieldsman in the deep, they knew right away that they were always going for two.

When India offered Mortaza the easy singles, he had no doubt that he would take them. "I had confidence in Rajib," he would explain later, "It was he who gave me the confidence."

That Mortaza has been Bangladesh's best and most inspirational player over the last couple of years was proved beyond doubt after the specialist batsmen in the team appeared intent on losing the game. When Sunday's play was washed out, making it 173 overs lost over three days, Habibul Bashar, the Bangladesh captain had said that they were disappointed at being denied the chance to earn a draw. The batsmen, and he was especially culpable, went all out to make sure that they had to earn the draw the hard way.

On a flat wicket, they kept finding ways to get out to bowling that was not special. The dismissals that illustrated this failing were those of Bashar, who cut his second ball straight to first slip; Shahriar Nafees who went for a flashy drive after having played himself in; and Mohammad Ashraful, who hung his bat out to a wide delivery. There were a couple of bad calls from the umpires too.

At tea, with the Mortaza-Hossain partnership still in the nascent stage, Mortaza had reached 33. When they came back out, Dav Whatmore told Mortaza, "Just get your fifty and save the follow-on." Over the last few days, Whatmore's team have given him many hair-tearing moments, not the least today. But when Mortaza reached his half-century, running with the bat raised towards the pavilion, Whatmore had a smile on his face as big as any he has had during his tenure. Mortaza had given him his farewell gift. Now, the others need to follow suit.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer with Cricinfo Magazine