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March 31, 2007
The Bangladesh squad is a picture of contentment at present. Nothing and no-one can rattle their sense of pride, achievement, and belonging, as they prepare to embark on their biggest adventure of all. If you saw the squad members milling around their hotel lobby, or sheltering from the rain on the steps of their dressing-room, you'd hardly imagine that the triple World Champions, Australia, are lying in wait for them tomorrow.
Relaxation has been a key component of Bangladesh's preparations. On Thursday, for instance, the squad took an entire day off training and went for a picnic at the top of Shirley Heights, Antigua's most scenic look-out point. "We're determined to enjoy every minute of the experience," said Dav Whatmore, the coach who has guided the team with a paternal instinct ever since their debacle at the 2003 World Cup. "We feel we've earned our right to be in the Super Eights, and our main objective is to stay here as long as we can."
No-one truly imagines that their adventure will extend beyond these next six matches, although the youthful disdain with which they swept past India in their pivotal group game in Trinidad means that the flakier qualifiers for this round - Ireland, West Indies and England in particular - will not be permitted to relax in the coming fortnight.
Neither will the Australians, who know from humiliating experience just how dangerous it is to drop their guard against these Bangladeshis. At Cardiff in June 2005 they succumbed to a thrilling final-over defeat in the NatWest Series, thanks to a nerveless hundred from Mohammad Ashraful, and key contributions from several of the men who will feature tomorrow - including Mashrafee Mortaza, Habibul Bashar, and Aftab Ahmed.
"It's long gone and forgotten about as far as we are concerned," said Ricky Ponting, who had been braced for the inevitable question. "We just didn't play at our best and I had a few things on my mind during the course of the day. We lost that game, Bangladesh played well, we made a lot of mistakes and hopefully we are a better team tomorrow than we were on that day."
That final sentiment is hardly in doubt. Australia are the runaway form team of this tournament to date. They have topped 300 runs in each of their four innings in the competition, and no opponent has come closer than South Africa's 83-run margin in their group-stage encounter at St Kitts. "The cricket you've seen us play the last few weeks," added Ponting, "would indicate that tomorrow, the way we are going at the moment, we should be able to play cricket good enough to win this game."
All the same, Bangladesh's morale is so high that nothing can faze them at present. "We're not finished yet," insisted Habibul Bashar, their captain. "It is not going to be easy; it will be very tough. But we believe it is not an impossible task. We had a good win against New Zealand, another against India - and we strongly believe that if we play well together on our day we can beat anyone."
Such confidence is a world away from the bedraggled gang of serial losers that used to represent Bangladesh. But in the past two years, something dramatic has happened in the country. The sheer volume of potential talent that a nation of 150,000,000 people can produce means that an upturn in fortunes was always going to happen, but the speed of the transition is something else. The exploits of Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim and Saqibul Hasan in particular, have been some of the most thrilling and uplifting events of this tournament.
"Fearless is one descriptive word," said Whatmore as he addressed the big-hitting impact of his top-order teenagers. "The way some of them play is sometimes a bit foolish. But overall it's good to see a positive attitude. It's very important to back yourself at international level and have a bit more self-belief.
"That self-belief comes from winning," added Whatmore, whose charges have thrived against the big guns at age-group level, and have spent the last 18 months honing their aggressive instincts against the lesser lights of Zimbabwe, Kenya and Scotland. "That stamp of aggression is nice to see if you can break a game open, but there's a lot of expectation and difficulty attached to ones so young. If it comes off, it's great, but I'm sure they will improve as time goes by and they become more consistent."
Expectations are onerous, but against a side as well-drilled as the Australians, no-one truly imagines a surprise in the coming match. Especially now that the Aussies are fully aware of the dangers of under-estimating their opponents. "They are in the Super Eights part of the World Cup tournament so you have to pay them the attention they deserve," added Ponting. "They've probably used the minnow tag very well in their favour. I think they are actually a bit better than that.
"They have improved a lot, there's no doubt about that," he continued. "We know they are a very capable side and we know that one-day cricket is the sort of game that if you don't pay enough attention to it, that it can sneak up on you and things can go against you pretty quickly." Expect the Australians to be fully focused on victory during Saturday.
Australia (probable) 1 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Clarke, 5 Andrew Symonds, 6 Mike Hussey, 7 Shane Watson, 8 Brad Hogg, 9 Nathan Bracken, 10 Glenn McGrath, 11 Shaun Tait.
Bangladesh (probable) 1 Shahriar Nafees, 2 Tamim Iqbal, 3 Saqibul Hasan, 4 Aftab Ahmed, 5 Habibul Bashar (capt), 6 Mohammad Ashraful, 7 Mushfiqur Rahim, 8 Abdul Razzak, 9 Mohammad Rafique, 10 Mashrafee Mortaza, 11 Syed Rasel.
Also, most brothers in a Test XI, and the fastest to 20 ODI centuries