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October 29, 2003
The history of Test cricket is littered with famous examples of captains who have won the toss, chosen to bowl ... and quickly been made to regret it. Mohammad Azharuddin at Lord's in 1990 (Gooch's match), and Nasser Hussain at Brisbane last year are just two of the most striking. If today's choice by Khaled Mahmud is not in the same league, it is for the simple reason that a 25th defeat in 26 matches could hardly be blamed on the toss. But it remains, nonetheless, a curious decision.
In fairness to Mahmud, he was only carrying on from Bangladesh's approach at Dhaka, and putting self-preservation above all else. The pitch is a fright - all green and tufty, like a Martian's chest hair - and with England's attack loaded with seam and swing bowling, Bangladesh might have been out of the match before it had even begun. But "might" is a mighty loose term. There is a fine line between caution and defeatism, and on this occasion Mahmud veered across it.
With a record that reads like theirs, it is rich to suggest that Bangladesh can approach any match with anything else but defeatism. But as other nations become aware of their steady improvement, those miserable statistics can and should be worked to Bangladesh's advantage. They are both a launchpad for success and a fallback for failure. With every game that goes by, the onus is on the opposition to avoid an unwanted place in history.
And until they were asked to bat first, England were as ripe for the picking as any side on offer. Injury had deprived them of Stephen Harmison, their man of the match at Dhaka. Matthew Hoggard, no less of a stalwart in that Test, will be eternally grateful for an extra day's recovery time. Richard Johnson is short of match practice, and as for the debutant Martin Saggers, he would have been as susceptible to first-day nerves as any other man. But above all, there's the spin bowling.
For the first time in their history, Bangladesh have found a facet of their game that is markedly superior to their opponents. Ashley Giles is low on confidence, and has been selected on humanitarian grounds alone, while Enamul Haque jnr and Mohammad Rafique are flushed with early success. In the circumstances, it defies logic that Bangladesh should forfeit the opportunity to bowl last, on a pitch that seems certain to crumble in Chittagong's baking heat.
England started and finished the day with a flourish, but their nerves were once again betrayed in an unseemly post-lunch collapse, during which Bangladesh stormed into their most commanding position of the series. Not once in the day did they appear overawed, not even when Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan were doling out some hefty punishment in the first session, and throughout the day Mahmud led by example, thrifty with the ball and intelligent with his bowling changes. More's the pity that Bangladesh didn't play to their strengths.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. He will be accompanying England throughout their travels in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
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