In a history of Bangladesh's glorious "what ifs" (read: Fatullah, Multan), the Mirpur ODI, where they let India off the hook after having them at 144 for 5 chasing 251, is one of the less documented ones. Bangladesh were at the best of their cricketing form, India at their worst in recent times. A few less-than-prudent captaincy moves and poor fielding lost them a match that they dominated for 80% of the duration. Bangladesh have only gone downhill since, and India have not looked back. The sense of "what if" still haunts from the Mirpur match.
Thirteen months later, in another meeting with India, Alok Kapali was their inspiration. Kapali is one in the long list of wasted, but not as celebrated as Mohammad Ashraful or Aftab Ahmed, talents that Bangladesh have had in the last decade. In 2002-03, when West Indies toured Bangladesh, with Sir Viv Richards in attendance, Kapali had scored 89 not out with the tail in the Dhaka ODI. Richards was so impressed he went and patted Kapali's back after the game. He also scored an 85 so impressive that he was adjudged the Man of the Match in the Chittagong Test though Bangladesh lost. And then unimpressive performances followed, and he went out of the reckoning.
Out of reckoning he was when Aftab Ahmed broke his finger while fielding at a practice session just before the Kitply Cup. Just like that he was recalled, and just like that he found himself in the middle today when Bangladesh were threatening to waste a good start. Just like that he showed what Richards might have seen six years ago. He batted with the sort of flair - especially in the final overs - that might put Ashraful to shame, but he also batted with a lot of sense. When he slogged, he slogged to the vacant midwicket region. When he played proper shots he inspired awe. The pull on one leg off RP Singh, which took him to 97, was reminiscent of both Gordon Greenidge and Kapil Dev at once. He paced the innings superbly: his second 50 came off 21 balls, and out of the 97 that Bangladesh scored in the last 10 overs, he scored 72.
There was a sense of nervous energy to Bangladesh when they came out to field. Three, four, at times five, bodies would converge on every ball that was played short to stop singles. Diving saves were made, and despite a few overthrows the pressure was maintained. But it will remain a shame that all Bangladesh managed to do was add Karachi to their list of "what ifs". What if Farhad Reza had caught Gautam Gambhir when he had got 56 runs, and India's score was 97 for 2? What if Mahmudullah completed what would have been a spectacular catch running backwards when Suresh Raina was 16, and India 104 for 2?
The "what if" becomes even more poignant given that the one place the Bangladeshi cricketers are desperate to play in is India. But a Bangladesh tour is just not commercially feasible for the BCCI. So, though Bangladesh have toured every other Test-playing nation - they will be going to Australia for ODIs this year and Tests the next, and also have full tours to the West Indies and South Africa lined up, each one their second tour to those countries - they've yet to play at the venues that get them really excited: a Test at the Eden Gardens or an ODI in Guwahati.
As an observer pointed out, Bangladesh will have to force India to change the state of affairs. And that will happen if they can beat India more often. And that could be one of the reasons why Bangladesh, so hopeless against meaningful opposition over the last year - they haven't beaten one for a year now - suddenly came up with an inspirational show on Saturday for about 70 overs. That could be one of the reasons why India are the only Test-playing nation they have beaten twice in ODIs. That could be one of the reasons why the last time they scored close to 250 in a live ODI was against India, more than a year ago in Mirpur.
The ICC's Future Tours Programme by the end of which every Test-playing team should have toured each other twice, ends in 2012, and regardless of how well or badly Bangladesh are playing, India will have to invite them twice in the next three years. The BCB, for its part, hasn't really pushed for a tour either. Perhaps India touring Bangladesh is much more advantageous, commercially, for them than vice versa. "We have been playing Test cricket for the last eight years, but haven't toured India," Ashraful, Bangladesh's captain, said. "I think this is very bad for us. I think if we go there and play, it will improve our cricket. It all depends on the boards, though."
It depends on the players too - and on Saturday they did their bit.