Bangladesh v India, 2nd Test, Chittagong, 2nd day December 18, 2004

Little sparks in the darkness

Mohammad Rafique: One shudders to think what Bangladesh would do without him © AFP

Few things are more heartening on a cricket field than a fightback from the underdog, and for two hours this morning, Bangladesh fought spiritedly to hold back the might of the Indian batting. India had claimed far too much ground on the first day to be seriously challenged, but the first session today, when Bangladesh removed five batsmen for 79 runs, felt like a Test match. For Bangladesh, who, in the words of their coach, set themselves small targets, it was a minor victory. But Test cricket is about smaller parts adding up to a bigger gain, and unfortunately for Bangladesh they do not yet possess the depth to stretch the gains of one session to the next.

Dav Whatmore also believes in setting his players personal goals, and one of the few members of his team who can claim to have met a few of them is Mohammad Rafique. He is 34, but is a bundle of energy. He bats with gusto, fields with enthusiasm and bowls like a pro. In a better team, his skills might have made a bigger difference, but for Bangladesh, they merely provide the occasional bright spot amid the reigning darkness.

Rafique is part of a group of bowlers who have led something of a revival of slow left-arm bowling. It's been a good year for the species. Ashley Giles, Daniel Vettori, Rangana Herath and Murali Kartik have won Test matches, and even Michael Clarke has shone. Rafique has ploughed on, mostly trying to check the flow of runs rather than bowling to take wickets. Flight becomes a luxury without runs in the bank, and Rafique has tailored his craft to the needs of his team and bowled quicker and flatter.

But among the Indian wickets that he claimed today, the one that stood out was Dinesh Karthik's. It was beautifully done. Karthik was looking to play his shots, and Rafique threw the ball up. It dipped in the air as Karthik danced down the wicket, beat him in the flight, turned and bounced and caught the edge on the way to the keeper. If Karthik hadn't connected, he would have been stumped anyway.

And if it hadn't been for some poor catching, Rafique would have claimed more than four wickets. He induced an edge off Rahul Dravid in his first spell yesterday, and could have had him in the slips immediately after he got his hundred. He nearly had Gautam Gambhir as well. He bowled with heart and patience, and though Harbhajan Singh went after him in the second session, he rarely allowed Sourav Ganguly, who considers left-arm spinners his staple diet, to break free. Without him, Bangladesh might concede 400 runs in day.

The other hero for Bangladesh has been Mashrafe Mortaza. He has a strong action, and moves the ball both in the air and off the pitch. Throughout this series, he has looked threatening with the new ball. He claimed Dravid in the first Test and should have had Sachin Tendulkar. He got the top three in this Test, and the mode of each dismissal spoke of his skills. Virender Sehwag poked at an outswinger, Tendulkar was trapped by one that jagged back, and Dravid was done in by extra bounce. Together, he and Rafique made their team look like a Test side for a couple of hours.

But depressingly normal service resumed after lunch, and India galloped away. And after a hint of resistance from the Bangladeshi openers, the batting began to come unstuck again. Now it only looks like a matter of how soon for India.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo in India and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.