It’s the eye of the tiger. It’s the thrill of the fight. Rising up to the challenge of our rivals. Complex anthropological studies have shown it is physically impossible for human beings to read the above set of words and not feel a deep urge to begin shadow boxing – most break out into a choreography of ducking, weaving and air jabbing. Other unexplained reactions might include an irresistible urge to slide into a velour tracksuit and sprint up the steps of the closest municipal building.
It’s been termed the “Rocky Effect” or “Balboa Syndrome”. Some 90% of those who took part in the decades-long research also mentioned that just glancing at the particular order of words led to the onset of palm-muted electric guitar and guttural, stabbing synthsreverberating in the auditory cortex. As intros go, it’s a risk. Chances are you stopped reading 150 words ago and are now headed to the nearest woodland to deadlift some tree-trunks.
Those remaining may either not be familiar with Sylvester Stallone’s canon or could be hanging on to see if this piece is about any one of the number of sporting “tigers” – Leicester or Castleford, Hull City perhaps. Today’s tigers of choice are the Bangladesh cricket team, England’s opponents in Wednesday’s T20 World Cup match in Abu Dhabi.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the eye of the Bangladesh tiger has been a bit bleary in major tournaments. Rather than possessing the predatory vision of a big cat they have traditionally stumbled and stuttered around the main global competitions.
They failed to chalk up a single win in the 2009, 2010 and 2012 editions of the T20 World Cup. In 2014 they managed to progress to the Super 10 stage before losing four games in a row. A couple of years later and their last over brain-fade and defeat off the final ball to India will no doubt still be a raw memory for supporters. Once again they crashed out of a major tournament without a second stage victory to speak of.
So, five years and a heck of a lot of T20 matches later and maybe this time things will be different? Defeat by Scotland in their first game was an inauspicious start. A loss that pre-empted the Bangladesh Cricket Board president, Nazmul Hassan, to question the commitment of the side and some of its senior players. The criticism did not go unnoticed, or uncommented on.
“We all felt bad,” was Mohammad Mahmudullah, the most experienced Bangladesh senior T20 players with 106 caps, bullish response. “We are human, we also have feelings. We have families. They also get upset. We expect criticism when it is warranted but if that resorts to being belittled, we feel bad … It is not right to talk about our commitment … I hope things will get better.”
Get better they did, briefly. Wins against Oman and Papua New Guinea followed and saw Bangladesh qualify into the Super 12s to meet the likes of England, Australia, South Africa and West Indies.
Their opening second stage match against Sri Lanka on Sunday suggested that the Tigers’ underperforming trend on the biggest stage could be set to continue. From a position of strength they conspired to lose, dropping simple catches at crucial moments and getting their bowling tactics muddled. Sri Lanka capitalised to prosper by five wickets with seven balls to spare. History appeared to be repeating itself.
But there is hope. As West Indies showed in their chastening loss to England on Saturday, the nature of T20 means that occasionally a side will have to compartmentalise a poor performance. In a round-robin style tournament where the games come thick and fast, an ability to forget is imperative. Most teams will have a stinker at some point. Strap on a nose peg and move on.
Bangladesh don’t have to look too far back for inspiration. Maiden T20 series wins against Australia and New Zealand were secured earlier in the year, albeit the victories came in favourable home conditions against weakened opposition. But who cares? Not Bangladesh, who saw their ICC ranking rise to No 6, sitting above the likes of Australia, Sri Lanka and double tournament winners West Indies.
If cricketing history has taught us something, it is to beware the wounded or “Cornered” Tigers. The current mix of new talent and gnarled experience in the Bangladesh squad is not to be underestimated. England certainly will not be taking their opposition lightly. Eoin Morgan will have a drawer somewhere in the attic of his mind marked “2015 World Cup”, Bangladesh being the side to dump England out at Adelaide, a dismal defeat that began the inquest and subsequent tearing up of the English white-ball game.
Ben Stokes may be back for the Ashes in December but in Abu Dhabi it will be Bangladesh who field their own talismanic, world-class and at times controversial all-rounder, Shakib Al Hasan. His T20 stats certainly make statisticians purr. With 117 scalps falling to his cunning off-spin in T20 internationals, he is the highest wicket-taker in the format, leapfrogging Lasith Malinga (107) earlier in the tournament.
He can be blistering with bat in hand too, the leading run-scorer in T20s for Bangladesh. Shakib’s consistency over a 15-year career have contributed to him currently being the top-rated ODI all-rounder in the world by the ICC and second, just behind Afghanistan’s Mohammad Nabi, in the T20 international rankings. He’s already backing up that status – being the tournament’s top wicket-taker (11) and third-highest run scorer so far.
A golden record then, but a tarnished one. The ICC banned Shakib in 2019 for his failure to properly report approaches from an alleged bookmaker. The player accepted his two-year ban (with one-year suspended), stating at the time: “I didn’t do my duty in this instance.”
He has the pandemic to thank for being at the T20 World Cup at all, if the tournament had gone ahead last year as scheduled he would have still been in exile. He hardly got his head down and stayed out of trouble post-ban either with some seemingly Basil Fawlty-inspired stump throwing/kicking in a Dhaka Premier League match in June.
He certainly brings even more bristle to a side that isn’t short on attitude. Liton Das’s bat-waggling and spinner Nasum Ahmed’s exuberant celebration after bowling Kusal Perera with the fourth ball of Sri Lanka’s innings evidence of a side that are up for the fight. Bangladesh will be looking to get back on their feet against England. If they do, the aim will be to go the distance, not just survive.