Bangladesh made it to the final of the Asia Cup, defying pre-tournament expectations with consecutive victories against their more fancied neighbours. It was only the second time they had reached the finals of a one-day tournament. The bowlers restricted Sri Lanka to 232, but rain siphoned off ten overs and reduced the target to 212. The increased asking-rate, 5.30 an over, gave both teams a chance, but enterprising batting by Tamim Iqbal on a spiced-up pitch gave their chase a kickstart. The Bangladesh middle order withstood the pressure and gave the expectant crowd a reason to show up in similar numbers for the final, on Thursday.
Nasir Hossain proved once again why he is the find of the season for Bangladesh and Tamim put the farce of his earlier non-selection to rest. Nasir's calm half-century partnership with Mahmudullah ensured Bangladesh did not implode in the rush for a quick finish. The sea of green jerseys in the crowd were rewarded for staying in their seats even as Sri Lanka clawed back. Many clasped their hands in prayer once Bangladesh lost their fifth wicket, Shakib Al Hasan, but the temperament of the sixth-wicket pair showed why Bangladesh could start the finals not as underdogs, but contenders. India, waiting on the result of this game, will be headed home despite a better net run-rate because they lost to Bangladesh.
Sri Lanka were pegged back at the very beginning, when another Hossain, Nazmul, coming in for the injured Shafiul Islam, nipped out three top-order wickets. The middle order, led by Chamara Kapugedera, gave the innings some respectability, but Sri Lanka were not able to post a challenging score on a ground on which two big chases had already been completed in the tournament.
A mid-innings downpour gave the pitch the kind of zip missing during the afternoon. Lasith Malinga tested the top order with bouncers that fizzed past the helmet, while Nuwan Kulasekara got the ball to swerve in to the right-handers to castle Nazimuddin and flummox the captain Mushfiqur Rahim.
Bangladesh were three down for 40, but the passage of play was punctuated by some blistering strokeplay by Tamim. His balance and follow-through were exemplary, especially in his driving through the off side. Mahela Jayawardene tried to plug that gap with a short point, and later with two fielders up close at cover and extra cover, but Tamim was not deterred. He lofted one over the covers and then whipped consecutive boundaries through midwicket, showing his class on both sides of the wicket.
Shakib, after passing a tough test against some short bowling, settled in and crashed Suranga Lakmal for three consecutive boundaries through the off side. Tamim reached his half-century with a clip for four off Farveez Maharoof, and his pleasing strokeplay won the applause of the country's premier Sheikh Hasina, also in attendance. He was dropped by Sachitra Senanayake, after lobbing a simple chance back to the bowler, but Senanayake finally got his man when an uppish slash was taken at point. Tamim walked back to a hush from the expectant crowd, with their hopes pinned on Shakib.
Shakib's battle with Senanayake was a compelling one. Shakib got on top of him initially with boundaries over extra cover, but once the bowler shortened his length, Shakib looked edgy. Unsure of the bounce, he stabbed at two consecutive deliveries and nearly lobbed both for catches. Senanayake got one to skid through and trapped him in front of leg stump to give Sri Lanka hope, with the hosts still 77 runs adrift.
Sri Lanka were guilty of easing the pressure on the batsmen by feeding them balls full on the pads, which were clipped away to fine leg. Nasir and Mahmudullah kept out the inswinging yorkers, did not panic when they played the ball to the fielders, and calmly picked up singles. Tillakaratne Dilshan was brought on after the quicks failed to take wickets, but the pair didn't change their approach. A firm push by Nasir was parried by mid-on to the boundary, leading to wild celebrations and a victory lap.
The win was set up by Nazmul, who removed the power trio of Jayawardene, Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara. Jayawardene missed a straight one, Dilshan chopped a delivery onto his stumps and Sangakkara spooned a catch to extra cover, bringing an end to an indifferent season with the bat for him.
Bangladesh came out with a sense of purpose, fielding with intent after winning the toss. They were aided by a surface which, though not the same used for the India-Pakistan game, appeared slower and suited their crop of bowlers. The medium-pacers bowled several slower deliveries to tighten the noose on the run-rate.
Kapugedera and Lahiru Thirimanne added 88 for the fourth wicket, but one of them needed to bat through the innings to set a competitive target. Upul Tharanga made a breezy 48*, but not for the first time since his demotion, he had to repair the damage done upfront, again raising questions about the structure of the batting line-up.
Kapugedera, under pressure to keep his place, made good use of his promotion, using his feet to the spinners. A stroke of luck, though, gave Bangladesh the breakthrough when Thirimanne missed a nudge off Abdur Razzak and was stumped after the ball deflected off Mushfiqur's pads onto the stumps.
Tharanga's arrival perked up the scoring, as he punished a wayward Shahadat Hossain for three quick boundaries. Kapugedera managed a face-saving half-century, but his innings was cut short by a sharp reflex-catch by Shakib at extra cover. Shakib struck with the ball soon after, getting two wickets. Boundaries by the lower order pushed Sri Lanka to 232, but one could sense that was always going to be inadequate.
It ended a mixed season for a travel-weary Sri Lanka, following the highs of Australia. Not too long ago, India were in their hotel rooms in Brisbane, hoping for a Sri Lankan defeat to push them into the CB Series finals. This time, in a hotel not far from the ground, they were ironically hoping for a Sri Lankan win. There were no back-door entries for a team which has suffered its worst away season in recent history.
*An earlier version of this story said Upul Tharanga had made a half-century