India on the threshold of victory despite Ashraful heroics

Bangladesh 333 (Ashraful 158*) and 118 for 9 (Pathan 5-32) trail India 540 by 89 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball commentary

Bangladesh scored 397 runs in the day, with Mohammad Ashraful scripting a magical 158, yet found themselves facing certain defeat after Irfan Pathan ripped through the top order in the second innings. Following on 207 in arrears, they lost wickets at regular intervals to finish the day at 118 for 9. Ashraful's superb knock had inspired a first-innings total of 333 but it was back to the bad old ways when they followed on, with only the last-wicket pair taking play into a fourth day.

Bangladesh have not been known for riveting play, yet today they thrilled many watchers by fighting valiantly to save a game that was in India's bag. But the day, and perhaps the game itself was overshadowed by Ashraful's wonderful innings, an essay of such splendour that he will be hard-pressed to better it. He inspired the men around him to believe in the improbable, and carried Bangladesh to the threshold of the follow-on target. But once India enforced their option to make Bangladesh bat again, wickets tumbled and they were all but bowled out inside a session.

Ashraful has often offered tantalising glimpses of his irrepressible talent before betraying himself with his sense of adventure. But today, he produced one of the greatest innings in Bangladesh's nascent cricketing history. From the very beginning, till after tea when the innings ended, he commanded respect from bowlers accustomed to Bangladeshi capitulation. His mates watched and, for a brief while, played like a team inspired.

He began the day positively, hooking and pulling Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan to the boundary, splitting gaps with clinical precision. As the ball softened and was pitched further up, he drove elegantly through cover. Realising that Harbhajan Singh was a less risky proposition than Anil Kumble, Ashraful stepped out to deposit the ball into the stands at midwicket. He later followed a reverse-sweep off the same bowler with a clout to midwicket to move from 92 to 100 before anyone could make sense of the scene unfolding before them.

The knock was as special for its dominance as for its uplifting effect. Habibul Bashar, for one, stayed with him and put on 70 in less than 14 overs. Bashar played along the ground, making redundant India's attempts to bounce him out. Even his mad mode of dismissal - a hopeless charge at Kumble left him stranded - did not affect Bangladesh. In has place came Aftab Ahmed, who stepped up to the task of accompanying Ashraful to his century and beyond. Aftab cut and thrust Pathan for powerful fours and then sent Harbhajan into the stands. He and Ashraful put on 115 runs for the fifth wicket before Kumble trapped him in front (239 for 5). Then, Khaled Mashud joined Ashraful in an entertaining 60-run stand to take Bangladesh close to the 340-run mark.

As wickets fell after tea, leaving Ashraful with the last man for company, he upped the tempo further, making a daring dash to avoid the follow-on. He crunched three fours off Zaheer to record Bangladesh's highest individual score and move past 150, and then effortlessly, stunningly, whacked Pathan well over midwicket. But a scamper for the run that would have given him the strike ended in a run-out, with Bangladesh only seven short.

After the heroics, déjà vu. Pathan grabbed his third five-wicket haul of the series, following which four more fell for next to nothing. Bangladesh tottered, ready to fall over in the first session tomorrow. Sessions like the first two have not come often for Bangladesh, if at all. But India struck back powerfully, as everyone suspected they would. Despite the inevitability of another defeat inside four days, Bangladesh's achievements in the first four hours today can't be brushed aside lightly. At least fleetingly, they hinted at a better tomorrow.

Rahul Bhatia is on the staff of Cricinfo.