England v Bangladesh, Super Eights, Barbados April 11, 2007

Saqibul stands tall but can't stop the fall



Saqibul Hasan mixed caution with aggression in his 57 not out © Getty Images

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, once warned his fellow Africans of "squandering the golden opportunities of independence". And while politics and sports are uneasy bedfellows at the best of times, Bangladesh will look back on this game as one that got away, an opportunity to enhance further their status among cricket's league of nations. Had either Mashrafe Mortaza, Mohammad Rafique or Abdur Razzak shown a little more awareness of the situation, they could have finished with 180, a total that would have posed many uncomfortable questions of an English side that was as clueless against the three left-arm spinners as South Africa and India had been.

One of the trio, Saqibul Hasan, had batted quite superbly, eschewing the more flamboyant shots in his repertoire after making a stroke-filled start. Before their last game, he had announced that he had nothing to fear from the South Africans as he'd already played against Australia and New Zealand - brave words that looked a touch foolish when he was out cheaply. So when he walked out to the middle with the scoreboard showing 26 for 3, you might have forgiven him a bit of trepidation.

Sajid Mahmood already had two wickets and was getting disconcerting bounce off a good length, but circumspection was the last thing on Saqibul's mind as he stepped back and struck a glorious cover-drive off the second ball he faced. As you watched the ball race to the fence, it was hard to believe that this was a 20-year-old who only picked up the bat six years ago.

Till then, football and badminton were his games - a cousin plays football professionally - and his early exploits with the cricket bat were restricted to tennis-ball games. Luckily for Bangladesh, someone was watching, and he was fast-tracked into the academy. The story goes that he started as a No. 10, and broke down in tears once because he wasn't getting chances to bat in the nets.

Soon he was a star with the Under-19s, and a national cap followed in July 2006. Since then, he's performed wonders with both bat and ball, and the composed half-century against India played a massive part in ensuring that there would be no late slip. On Wednesday, he had to grind out the runs, not helped by wickets falling steadily against the hard white ball.

Opportunities though weren't missed. Andrew Flintoff was welcomed into the attack with a deft cut to third man, and there was then a stunning six over backward point in the best traditions of Gilchrist and Jayasuriya. "He doesn't get nervous at all and is very confident," Rabeed Imam, the Bangladesh media manager, said and his point was illustrated by two sublime drives through extra-cover as Saqibul took 27 from the 38 balls that Flintoff bowled to him.



Abdur Razzak and his left-arm partners again caused trouble © Getty Images

"It was a fantastic effort from him," Habibul Bashar, the captain, said. "If one guy could have given him support, it would have been a different ball game. He's a young kid, and he showed that no matter what the conditions, you can be positive."

The conditions were admittedly difficult early on, with the ball darting around, but Bashar didn't look for excuses. "We didn't adapt," he said simply. "It was a new wicket and we knew something was going to happen." Some of the shot selection wasn't too clever either, but Bashar justified it by saying: "We thought attack was the best defence."

It was Saqibul who showed how aggression and caution could go hand in hand, adding 47 with Mortaza, whose restraint finally gave way to an ugly hoick, and 24 with Razzak. But 143 was never likely to be enough and for the spinners to create an impression, there needed to be a dent or two with the new ball.

Once again, it was a left hand that provided the opening. Syed Rasel won't set the pulse racing with raw speed, but his line and length are impeccable, his changes of pace canny. Mortaza worked up a fair head of steam at the other end, but it was Rasel that did the damage, allowing Bashar to bring on Razzak as early as the 13th over. After that, it was spin all the way, with Razzak and the wily Mohammad Rafique probing to reveal many of the old English frailties against the turning ball.

"If we could have got one or two more wickets, there would have been three tailenders," Bashar said when asked if he'd harboured any visions of an upset with England 110 for 6. "But Nixon and Collingwood batted very sensibly."

Even with all the permutations possible, their poor run-rate effectively rules Bangladesh out of the running for a last-four place. "Our chances are very slim," Bashar said, "but the Super Eights are getting interesting." They would have been even more intriguing if he and his boys had put a few more runs on the board.

Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo

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