Mashrafe out for Melbourne redemption
"This is the first time I am walking in Melbourne. Walking, playing. The previous times I used to walk for a couple of days and then straight to bed. This is the first time I am seeing Melbourne properly."
It is nothing short of remarkable that Mashrafe Mortaza has braved at least 11 surgeries, most of them in Melbourne, in a 14-year-long career to have come this far. In an interview to Bangla daily Prothom Alo, Mashrafe spoke about his associations with the city, which he visited for the first time in 2003, and how all of them have been painful.
"It is true that I have had a lot of hard times in Melbourne," he said. "I have had one operation after another here. They used me make me unconscious to operate, so I didn't understand what was happening."
In stark contrast, this time in Melbourne, on the eve of arguably Bangladesh's biggest match, Mashrafe will lead a team that has looked aware of its strengths and weaknesses and assured of its ability to fight.
Bangladesh have already achieved the goal they had before the World Cup - making the quarters - with the England win. The Prime Minister's congratulatory message boosted their cause as they gave New Zealand a tough fight. Now, they are free of expectation.
"The group stage was more important for us because back home all people are expecting that we beat some bigger side and go through," Mashrafe said. "That was more pressure, I think. For tomorrow, I think as I said, the boys are very relaxed. They just want to perform on the biggest ground. They have played already on this ground, but that match wasn't good for us. Hopefully we'll play our best tomorrow, and the boys are really excited."
Bangladesh will need to fight again, and that fight will start with Mashrafe, who has had a role to play in each of the three Bangladesh wins against India. The first came in the winter of 2004 - he scored an unbeaten 31 in that game in Dhaka, and then picked up the wickets of Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni.
His best performance came in the 2007 World Cup in Port-of-Spain, on March 17, 2007, two days after the death of his close friend Majurul Islam Rana, to whom he dedicated the win. Mashrafe then played an important role in another win against India, on March 16, 2012 in the Asia Cup. That Bangladesh are facing India in March again could be taken as portent for something.
But Mashrafe wasn't looking back, saying "2007 is not going to help us." At 31 years, he has seen enough pain. He has taken it in his stride and kept moving forward. He is applying the same learning to his team.
Appointed the ODI captain following a terrible 2014 for Bangladesh, in which they suffered 13 straight losses in ODIs along with an embarrassing loss to Hong Kong in the World T20s, Mashrafe has led the team within a short space of time to a first appearance in the quarter-finals. More impressively, he has done so in a manner quite unlike the Bangladesh we know.
Bangladesh have been able to build a campaign with a new-found calmness, which has parallels with Mashrafe's successes in his ongoing battle with his body. He hasn't been considered for Tests since 2009 and so, he has been able to extend his limited-overs career. Likewise, Bangladesh did not let the battering against Sri Lanka affect them too badly; they sprang back with consecutive wins against Scotland and England.
It could be the change that Mashrafe has brought. An extrovert, he commands respect among the seniors and puts the newer members of the team to ease. It's the same trait that endears him to the owner of the small road-side eatery, which he still frequently visits, at Zero Point in his native Khulna.
"He is someone who always talks to the young players and the seniors, keeps motivating them," Shakib Al Hasan said about Mashrafe's style of leadership. "He is someone who is very friendly with everyone, he is very close to everyone. A player can come to him and say whatever he feels like and they can discuss. That's a very good sign."
On the field, Mashrafe has led with the bowling. His economy of 4.89 is the best among Bangladesh's frontline bowlers despite the lack of pace. On another day, he could have picked up a few more wickets in the match against Sri Lanka - Lahiru Thirimanne was dropped twice during his excellent first spell of 6-0-20-0 - but his two timely strikes to dismiss Alex Hales and Joe Root in the game against England twice broke England's momentum. Among the tallest in the team, Mashrafe's standing in the inner circle, closer to the bowlers and in the middle of the field, has led to better visible control.
But Mashrafe was modest in his assessment of his role and chose to look at the bigger picture, to the challenges that lay ahead beyond the World Cup: "I actually haven't changed anything. As I said, the credit should go to the boys. They've adapted very well. And I say that challenge is still going on because 2015 has just started."
Melbourne may be exhilarating or Melbourne may hurt, but it seems that, under Mashrafe, the team will keep moving forward.
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo