Bangladesh's powerplay woes kept haunting them against Pakistan even though the three T20Is were played on good batting pitches at the Shere Bangla National Stadium. The difficulty to get going during the fielding restrictions took root in the two home series wins against Australia and New Zealand when, in a bid to find winning confidence ahead of the T20 World Cup, the team management used unplayable pitches for all ten matches. It sucked the life out of Bangladesh's batting unit. There is fear that it may have spooked the batters to go for their shots in the powerplay, permanently.
Bangladesh averaged just 30 per innings in the powerplay in the Pakistan series, the lowest this year. They posted totals of 127, 108 and 124, below-average scores that the visitors chased successfully. Bangladesh had begun their T20I assignments in 2021 by averaging 51 in New Zealand, deemed difficult batting conditions for Bangladeshi batters. The powerplay scoring was still healthy in Harare in July, but the slide started against Australia in August.
They won against Australia and New Zealand by margins of 4-1 and 3-2 respectively. The spinners took 40 wickets at 16.07 and pace bowlers averaged only 13.6 for their 33 wickets. The combined team batting averages languished between 13.50 and 16.54 among the three teams, among the lowest in T20Is played among top teams. Bangladesh's team scores also showed a sharp decline.
Captain Mahmudullah and coach Russell Domingo both claimed multiple times that the team's overall confidence from these two series wins - Bangladesh's first against Australia and New Zealand - was more important than their batters' flagging belief in their approach.
In an interview to ESPNcricinfo in September, Domingo said he was unconcerned about batters' confidence going into the T20 World Cup.
"I don't think the batters will carry any scars going into that event (T20 World Cup)," Domingo said. "I think it is always easier to go from poor pitches to good pitches, than the other way around. We had a tough couple of weeks here but a lot of positives have come out of it. Once we get into better surfaces in the World Cup, it won't be long before the boys get back to their best."
But Bangladesh is also a team that relies heavily on mood and momentum. At the end of Bangladesh's World Cup campaign, Mahmudullah said that they needed to start soundly to do well in T20Is. Good starts with the bat and ball sets the tone for most teams in any format, but Bangladesh have showed time and again that they take a long time to turn around from bad starts.
Bangladesh averaged 51 and 45 in powerplays in New Zealand and Zimbabwe in the first two T20I series this year. It continued the 46 powerplay average form the four previous years (barring 2020). But Bangladesh had a difficult 2021. They were winless for ten matches from January to May, before they beat Sri Lanka in an ODI series, and Zimbabwe in all three formats.
The belief in the Bangladesh camp was that winning against Australia and New Zealand at home would not only be good build-up for the World Cup, but also be face saving for the cricket team and the cricket board. The wins did the trick. The turnaround pleased BCB president Nazmul Hassan enough for Domingo's contract to be renewed. Hassan also seemingly forgave Mahmudullah for retiring in the middle of a Test match.
But a large section of fans and the media were not convinced. While Australia brought roughly half of their World Cup squad to Bangladesh, New Zealand sent a second-string side. They were international cricketers but none of them would feature in New Zealand's UAE-bound squad. Bangladesh fielded all their World Cup players.
The move backfired spectacularly for the home side. Bangladesh's struggle with the bat was was thrown into sharp relief by Australia and New Zealand's surge in the tournament, both making the final. Many fans pointed out how Matthew Wade got over his Bangladesh struggle to play a winning hand in the semi-final against Pakistan. It was arguably the sharpest evaluation of Bangladesh's reliance on sluggish low pitches: T20s are better when played on sporting pitches which have a bit of pace on the bat.
Bangladesh won half of home T20Is from 2016 to 2019. In each of those four years, their powerplay average was 42, 53, 51 and 42. The average number of dot balls played was also going down during this period, before taking a sharp upward swing. The average number of boundaries also took a nosedive.
The powerplay plunge has also taken down Soumya Sarkar and Liton Das, two of Bangladesh's most blessed strokeplayers in white-ball cricket. Liton had the second best strike rate in the world between 2016 and 2019. His strike rate in powerplays in 2021 was 96.57, leading to his ouster from the T20I side after the World Cup. He shares half the blame for his inability to tackle the home conditions, and then unable to reprise his 2016-19 form in the World Cup.
Soumya thrives in the powerplay as he likes to play on the up, and over the top. His strike rate dropped from the 120s (2016-19) to 96 this year. None of the Bangladesh batters who faced more than hundred balls in the powerplay this year has a 100 strike rate.
The three batting pitches against Pakistan is an encouraging sign. The BCB and team management possibly understood there's no point torturing their own batters, particularly without the experienced trio of Mushfiqur Rahim, Shakib Al Hasan and Tamim Iqbal. With less than a year out from the next T20 World Cup, Bangladesh have to put together a new game plan. They also have a difficult 2022 schedule to deal with. Building a T20I-only pool of players may be a good option, but for that they need a domestic T20 tournament played on good pitches.
Bringing back their quick scoring in the powerplay should be one of their biggest targets when they resume playing T20Is, from February. Starts are important for Bangladesh, and without runs, no team can win T20s.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84