A tour of two halves
They came, they saw, they were conquered, but Bangladesh's inaugural tour of England, which ended with a six-wicket defeat against Australia at Canterbury on Thursday, was arguably the most important step yet in their long and tortuous road towards international maturity.
It was a tour of two distinct legs, and the contrasts between them could not have been starker, but Bangladesh survived with their morale intact, and thanks to one extraordinary day in Cardiff, they leave with the lasting gratitude of the entire cricketing population of England. Even if England themselves fail to beat Australia this summer, the memory of that little setback will give them something to smile about as they lick their Ashes wounds.
Cardiff was the indisputable high point. Bangladesh's first-class tour, on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster, even in the eyes of their most optimistic fans. In alien conditions, they were thrashed by a second-string Sussex side by an innings and 226 runs, and never came close to competitiveness in the two Tests, as a pre-occupied England side trampled them into the footmarks at Lord's and Chester-le-Street, in their eagerness to get to grips with the Australians.
Such a thoughtless schedule could have broken the Bangladeshis. Instead, they were galvanised by the arrival of the Aussies - perhaps on the reasonable assumption that they had absolutely nothing to lose - and there was a clear demarcation between the two legs of the tour. In the second innings at Durham, with a two-day defeat looming large and England going for the jugular, caution was thrown to the wind in spectacular fashion, as Aftab Ahmed broke the shackles with a spanking 82 not out, and reminded himself and his colleagues to play their natural game.
Aftab, in fact, had never stopped playing his natural game, which had been the root of his problems in the early part of the series. Bangladesh's shortcomings had been epitomised by his 14-ball 20 in the first innings at Lord's - five spanking fours, and caught at slip going for a sixth. Admittedly, it gave a glimmer of the possibilities that lay ahead in the one-dayers, but with just nine victories in 19 years of failure, the odds on an Australian win in their first match of the NatWest Series were a generous 500/1 on.
It was Bangladesh's batting that caught the eye - for better, but usually for worse - throughout the tour, but the undersung hero was in fact a bowler. At Chittagong on the 2003-04 tour, Mashrafe Mortaza's 4 for 60 had kept Bangladesh in the hunt for the first half of their second Test defeat, until a grievous knee injury put paid to the rest of his year.
Now, restored to full fitness, he was Bangladesh's solitary cutting edge in both forms of the game, and after taking four of the six England wickets that fell in the Tests, he struck with his second delivery against Australia. His figures of 1 for 33 in ten overs at Cardiff were every bit as important as Mohammad Ashraful's innings-of-a-lifetime in the historic run-chase.
During the Tests, Ashraful suffered from a similar impetuous streak to Aftab, and his final innings of the one-day series - six one ball, bowled the next - showed that his shot selection issues have not been entirely ironed out. But few cricketers have an eye quite like his, and by harvesting 194 runs from 153 balls in consecutive innings against Australia and England, he raised his profile hundred-fold.
All summer, Bangladesh have been playing with a third agenda in mind - a county contract for one or two of their rookies. It would be a miracle if Ashraful and Mashrafe have not attracted at least a flicker of interest. Javed Omar, Bangladesh's Mr Consistent, also enjoyed a summer to be proud of, while Habibul Bashar, the captain, recovered eventually from his felling at Hove, and played an important role in the victory over Australia.
Given the genuine progress Bangladesh have made in the brief time available, it remains a travesty that they were forced to deal with such a steep learning curve. In a fortnight's time, no fewer than nine of the squad, led by Shahriar Nafees, whose 75 in the final match against Australia was another big tick in the progress box, will be returning to England in the guise of the Bangladesh A squad. They have reasonable form, experience of the conditions and a low profile in which to develop their game. Everything, in fact, that the Test side ought to have been permitted at the outset of the summer.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo