When the National Cricket League's one-day version kicked off no one felt the pressure more than Raqibul Hasan and Mohammad Ashraful. Raqibul was almost anonymous during Bangladesh's trumping of New Zealand, while Ashraful had been relegated to the stand-by list and had clearly fallen out of favour following a prolonged streak of indifferent form at every level. With Zimbabwe arriving in just over a month's time and the outline of the World Cup team starting to take shape these two had their work cut out for them.
After three rounds of the first phase both had made their point with Raqibul leading the scorer's table and inspiring Barisal's brilliant unbeaten run while Ashraful was at the forefront of Dhaka Division's challenge. The one-dayers also had more spice and jazz as most of the national team players turned out for their divisions at some point and the batting scene was dominated by Jamie Siddons' boys with six of the top ten run getters part of the 20-man preliminary squad for Zimbabwe.
Barisal are a different proposition when it comes to limited-overs cricket and maybe due to their perennial struggles in the four-dayers a lot of people often forget that this unfashionable side were the champions of the last edition of the NCL one-day competition. They picked up where they had left off by restricting Alok Kapali's Sylhet to 210 at Rajshahi.
Kapali's decision to bat on probably the truest wicket in the country backfired as left-arm seamer Shafaq Al Zabir and legspinner Fazle Mahmud picked up three wickets apiece. Kapali's 59 held the innings together, but Barisal cruised to the target by five wickets on the back of Raqibul's unbeaten 90.
Another captain regretting his decision at the toss was Khulna's Saghir Hossain who put Rajshahi in on a totally different kind of track at Bogra. In front of a healthy crowd Rajshahi went on a run spree led by Sabbir Rahman's run-a-ball 112. Nasir Hossain (53), Jahurul Islam (50) and Shabbir hit a combined eight sixes as Rajshahi reached 301 for 7. With no Shakib Al Hasan or Imrul Kayes at the top Khulna were never really in the hunt and folded for 190.
Chittagong were the surprise winners against Dhaka at the Shere Bangla National Stadium after defending a modest 215. Mahmudullah (52) and Ashraful (40) raised Dhaka Division's hopes but wickets were picked up at crucial moments and they fell 23 runs short in the failing evening light. Seamer Tareq Aziz was the pick of Chittagong's bowlers, picking up 4 for 45.
Raqibul's second unbeaten innings, a rapid 101, allowed Barisal to set a decent target of 252 at Bogra. Khulna appeared to be well-set to wrap the game up easily when they reached 200 for 3 in the 40th over with the ever-dependable Tushar Imran two runs shy of a ton. But Imran was out without adding to his score and the next six wickets went down for 33 runs as Barisal sneaked a 19-run victory. Kamrul Islam (4 for 43) again fired for Barisal as his pace and movement with the old ball proved too much for Khulna.
At Dhaka Naeem Islam (113) and Mushfiqur Rahim (93) put on 212 for the fourth wicket to lift Rajshahi to 281 for 6 after they had stumbled to 55 for 3 against Chittagong. Any prospects of Chittagong making a fist of their chase depended on Aftab Ahmed, Nafees Iqbal and captain Nazimuddin recalling some vintage batting.
But Nazimuddin left early, and Aftab played some sumptuous strokes during his brief cameo before getting stumped charging down the track to left-arm spinner Saqlain Sajib. Nafees raced to a run-a-ball 34 before he became Saqlain's second victim, and Chittagong slumped to a 151-run trashing.
Ashraful was in the thick of things at Rajshahi as Dhaka overpowered Sylhet by seven wickets. Sylhet's 158 was overhauled by Dhaka with 19.2 overs to spare, Ashraful (66 not out) finishing the game with a six.
Raqibul didn't even make it to the crease as Barisal romped to a nine-wicket win over Chittagong at the Shaheed Chandu Stadium. Kamrul Islam, who is not yet 19, enhanced his growing reputation with another hostile spell. His five-for kept Chittagong to 218 and then Fazle Mahmud, whose legspin proved so effective against Sylhet, showed what he could do with the bat in an unbeaten 100. Shahriar Nafees was also in great touch with 80 not out off 89 balls.
Rajshahi's impressive run looked in no danger after they had raced to 273 for 7 against Dhaka at Rajshahi and then snapped up three Dhaka wickets for 43. Mushfiqur top scored with 73 while there was a welcome return to runs for Junaid Siddique (55) as Rajshahi looked set for a third straight win. Mahmudullah, who has had his own batting struggles in the past months, anchored the Dhaka reply with a well-paced 116. Ashraful chipped in with 63 and Noor Hossain showed no nerves with 17 off nine balls with two sixes as Dhaka won with two wickets and three deliveries in hand.
Khulna received a lifeline Shakib Al Hasan decided that he was rested and ready for action after taking time off following the New Zealand triumph to overcome tiredness from four months of non-stop cricket. He didn't have much to do as Rubel Hossain, also playing his first game of the NCL, jolted the Sylhet top-order with a fiery burst at Mirpur. The hapless Sylhetis were bundled for 135 and Khulna tasted their first victory by cruising to 136 for 4 in 32.4 overs.
Player of the week: Booed and vilified for his slow batting and lack of attacking intent during the New Zealand series, Raqibul answered his detractors with unconquered innings of 90 and 101 in his two outings. And with his strike-rate pushing 90 Raqibul proved that shifting gears is very much part of his repertoire too.