On a Friday in the United Arab Emirates India will not play Pakistan in the final of the Asia Cup 2018. Scriptwriters may read and weep, but it is Bangladesh who will join India, who qualified for the final at the earliest. And, while India-Pakistan is a more delicious prospect for fans and supporters, it is Bangladesh who have played the better cricket in this tournament and are most likely to stretch India.
India have exuded a relaxed air throughout this series, belying the heat and dust of the desert. They trained once, ahead of the first game, against Hong Kong, but since have focused more on recovery and staying fresh, something aided by the fact that they played all their matches in Dubai and the schedule was loaded in their favour, barring back-to-back matches at the start.
On the field India have kept their cool too, taking a cue from the two men who have captained in this series. Rohit Sharma is rarely animated on the field and Mahendra Singh Dhoni doesn’t break a sweat even when he sits in a sauna. It has helped that they have rarely had to deviate from a set script.
The openers start slowly but steadily, build a foundation and on this big ground in Dubai the rest work towards a reasonable but not necessarily mammoth total. Defence on the field has been built on Bhuvneshwar Kumar picking up wickets at the top, Jasprit Bumrah keeping it tight and allowing the spinners then to get through their overs quickly and put a choke-hold on the batsmen.
This is exactly what the plan will be against Bangladesh, who are hamstrung by the fact that their two best batsmen, Shakib Al Hasan and Tamim Iqbal are out with injury. That being the case, much rests on Mushfiqur Rahim and Mohammad Mithun, and India will know if they get these two early the game is as good as in the bag.
Shikhar Dhawan, who has formed a deadly opening partnership with Rohit, did not underestimate the opposition. “I guess they’re balanced, know what their strengths are, they’ve improved a lot. They’re a competitive side. Hats off to them, the way they played and won against Pakistan. When you play all-round cricket, the results will follow,” said Dhawan on the eve of the final. “The plan we made against them in the previous game, we will try and stick to that. Conditions will remain the same, we’ll plan for individuals by looking at videos of their batsmen, revise and prepare accordingly.”
Dhawan said that Virat Kohli’s absence did not necessarily add to the workload. “As such, it’s not like there is extra responsibility on us because Virat isn’t there. This is the kind of tournament where there was an opportunity to test our middle order and identify combinations and players who can play for the future,” said Dhawan. “Virat isn’t there but me and Rohit are there, we play every game like this is a bilateral series or any big game. It feels good to score runs, everyone thinks about consistency.”
When asked about Bangladesh’s tendency to choke on the big occasion, Dhawan resisted the temptation to get into mind games or throw a barb. “How many years have they been playing cricket now? If we see any other team, what will be the difference? Sometimes reaching finals is always a big thing, I look at it differently. Hopefully we win tomorrow, we will see them crossing that barrier also, things can change anytime. That’s how I see it.”
Dhawan believed that India’s unbeaten run into the final meant that they would have the advantage over their opponents. “Of course we’ll carry momentum and give it the best shot, all teams are competitive, everyone thought it was India-Pakistan in the final, but Bangladesh won a great match last night, we can’t take them lightly just because Pakistan is a bigger team,” said Dhawan. “Bangladesh is playing better cricket, there’s a difference between a team on paper and who is doing good on the field, that’s how I see.”
Bangladesh have tremendous self-belief and Mashrafe Mortaza, the captain, has played a major role in rallying his troops. “Mashrafe bhai told us one thing ... we talked about one thing: when at war, you don’t look back,” Mushfiqur Rahim revealed. “Either kill or be killed — one or the other. So that was a huge inspiration.”
Now it remains to be seen if Bangladesh have the skill to walk the walk, having talked the talk.