Before Bangladesh began their Under-19 World Cup campaign, their captain Akbar Ali had made a bold statement. He had said that not only will his team come out of their difficult group of Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and Scotland successfully, but they could win the whole tournament. Those were spunky words from the captain of a team that had never before even reached the final in the history of the competition, but as the World Cup has progressed, it is steadily turning prophetic.
On the eve of their semifinal against New Zealand, Akbar - looking to become the first Bangladesh captain in history to lead his team to a World Cup final - spoke to ESPNcricinfo about how his team have come this far.
"A lot of credit needs to go to the Bangladesh Cricket Board," Akbar said. "The number of games we've played as a group, no other country has played that many games. This wasn't the case in past Bangladesh teams, but things have changed now. Foreign tours, comfortable surroundings, need to give credit to the board."
As a group, the current Bangladesh team came together in September 2018, when the board organised a focused camp to hand-pick those who would represent the country at the 2020 U-19 World Cup. Entering the tournament, they played 30 youth ODIs, winning 18. They beat England thrice in their own backyard, won series in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and before the World Cup, had the second-highest win-percentage - behind India - for teams to have played 15 or more games. The togetherness has helped the team become a 'unit'.
"We have been together as a group for 15 months now to focus on this World Cup, so whenever we were in Bangladesh we stayed together as a camp," he says. "Travelling to England and then the Asia Cup, the bonding has been amazing. This togetherness obviously helps when we are playing, but more importantly, it makes us a second family outside the field. Everyone understands each other's personality inside out - when to have fun, when to give a person his space."
What Akbar is referring to when he talks about 'space' is how the team came together to support him after he recently received some bad news from home on the eve of Bangladesh's first World Cup game against Zimbabwe. Akbar was more than 8,000 kilometres away from home, but the team ensured his morale stayed unaffected. He is thankful for that. It has also helped him put life and sport in perspective.
"I have tried to keep things simple. At the end of the day, this is just a game. One day you'll do well, another day you won't. Even if we succeed, it's important not to go head over heels. If you don't do well, remind yourself this is just a game. Cricket isn't the end of the world. We play on the field, but outside it, there's more to life."
"Even we are confused sometimes, what is our strength. But what I feel is, as a group, we combine very well as a team. On days our batsmen can't pull us through, our bowlers help us win. And vice versa."AKBAR ALI
A wicketkeeper-batsman, Akbar has always been a team man. He started his journey as a class VII student who enrolled at Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishtan (BKSP), the country's national sports institute. He quickly became part of the institute's U-14 and U-16 teams. His current batting position, too, has been dictated by the team's strengths.
"Captaincy isn't new to me," Akbar explained. "Captaincy through the ranks has helped me. Ever since I've been playing U-19s, I've been playing at No. 6. It's because of the combination of our XI. We have excellent top-order batsmen, so I'd rather position myself as a finisher.
"Every captain's philosophy is different, so I don't try to copy anyone else. But as a wicketkeeper-captain, I try to see what the opposition batsman is doing. Even when I was not captain, I used to tell the captain as much as I could, so it's been a natural progression. Teams with wicketkeeper-captains seem to have an edge these days. The best example is MS Dhoni. Being so close to a batsman, he can observe the batsman's footwork and pass information. The advantage of leading as a wicketkeeper isn't massive, but it cannot be ignored."
When asked what makes this Bangladesh team worthy of winning a World Cup, Akbar didn't have an answer. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"Even we are confused sometimes, what is our strength," he said. "But what I feel is, as a group, we combine very well as a team. On days our batsmen can't pull us through, our bowlers help us win. And vice versa. So difficult to say which element is better, but I like how our collective performance pulls us through."
Bangladesh take on New Zealand in Thursday's match to set up a final contest against rivals India. Although Bangladesh one-upped New Zealand last year, they lost their warm-up game against the same opponents before the World Cup began. Akbar, however, says there are no scars from that defeat.
"If you look at history, you may think it's an important game - semifinal and what not - but as a team, we are taking it as a normal match," Akbar said. "We don't want to take unwanted pressure imagining that the world will end if we don't win this game. The way we've played 8-10 games before, we just want to continue those same processes.
"Yes, we have lost [in the practice game], but we beat them comprehensively in the tour of New Zealand. So past results or statistics won't make a difference on the day. Both teams will make mistakes, but the team that will make less mistakes, that team will succeed in the semifinal.
"It will obviously be a game of nerves. We can say we won't take pressure, but it will definitely come tomorrow at some point. At the end of the day, the one which will be able to express themselves fearlessly, they will succeed. If there's any team that's gentlemanly, it's New Zealand. They have taught the world that at the end of the game, learn to be friends. Rivalries are well and good but within a limit."
As for what kind of legacy he wants to leave once the tournament ends, Akbar says the team's journey will be complete once they win the final. He says that his team's self-satisfaction "will be unmatched", purely because they came with a goal. He is two steps away from achieving it.
Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo