'Pressure is totally on Bangladesh' - Nabi
"What does it mean that you have never beaten Afghanistan?" It was the first question Mashrafe Mortaza was asked in his pre-match press conference. Mashrafe clarified that the "never" included all of one ODI, in the Asia Cup last March. He also said that Bangladesh had had their "revenge" just two weeks later by demolishing Afghanistan at the World T20.
It is a strange situation for Bangladesh ahead of their World Cup opener against Afghanistan. They are the Full Members. They have been playing Test cricket since 2000 and ODI cricket since 1986. They are expected to win over a side that, as Afghanistan coach Andy Moles pointed out, was not even in the ICC when Bangladesh played in their first World Cup in 1999. But the only time Bangladesh have gone up against Afghanistan in the ODI format, they have lost. At home.
Afghanistan captain Mohammad Nabi's responses illustrated the duality of situation Bangladesh are in. He was asked if he really thought Afghanistan were a better team than Bangladesh, or if he had just been playing mind games when he had said before that his team could beat them again. "Pressure is not on Afghanistan. Pressure is totally on Bangladesh," Nabi replied almost immediately.
Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan were missing from the Bangladesh side that lost to Afghanistan in the Asia Cup in Fatullah, it was pointed out. They are around this time. "Yeah, Tamim and Shakib are the most senior players for Bangladesh team," Nabi said. "[But] if you look at the conditions in Bangladesh, it is totally different."
Afghanistan have several strapping fast bowlers, and believe that the bouncier conditions in Australia will suit them more. Nabi also said that a few Afghanistan players' exposure to the Bangladesh Premier League had given them knowledge about their opponents. Ironically, it was a BPL condition that a franchise had to have a player each from an Associate nation.
The Afghans themselves are "excited" to be at their first World Cup, Moles said, but not nervous. They defeated UAE in a warm-up match and batted out the entire 50 overs against India, something Bangladesh could not do in both their practice matches. They are a side that will test all their opponents if they can get their act together, Moles said.
What they needed to watch out for was too much aggression, the coach felt. "What happens is the Afghans, when we don't play our best cricket, we get a bit excited," Moles said. "We want to hit fours and sixes."
That is the challenge usually for the lesser teams, to properly construct an innings over 50 overs in a one-dayer. Nabi has said before that Afghanistan need to sustain their intensity over the duration of a match. It is something that used to be said of Bangladesh in the past as well.
Afghanistan are the flavour of the cricket world at the moment for their remarkable rise amid war, and how much their performances mean for people faced with hardships back home. Amidst all that, it is worthwhile to remember that the passion for the game in Bangladesh is widespread and overwhelming to witness, and probably second to none. Despite their usually disappointing performances, they have a big media contingent following the team on tours.
Several Bangladeshi fans are also expected to travel from Sydney to watch their side play Afghanistan in Canberra. Mashrafe was conscious of the tremendous following Bangladesh enjoy, both at home and away. There may be dual pressure on his side, but he will not want them to drive back disappointed.
Abhishek Purohit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo