It was Muralidharan’s backyard, Colombo, September 2001 and Ashraful, just past 17 and making his Test debut, fares no better than his clueless team-mates who fail to crawl beyond 90 in the first innings after a typical terrorising spell of five for 13 by the greatest off-spinner of them all. Sri Lanka yawn, belch and make merry for the next couple of days to amass 555 runs. Come Bangladesh’s second innings and the middle order is understandably in utter disorder because everyone wants to bat way lower than he did in the first innings!
So our Ash, the new babe of the team, is the sacrificial promotee in the batting order at number five (he batted at number seven in the first innings). But he’s happy, if anything, to be out there and doing what he does best, which is to rely fully on his instincts to ensure that he bops-till-he-drops.
In the end, notwithstanding the fact that Bangladesh lost by an innings and a bit, and apart from the pat on the back and congratulatory words received from Murali himself, the greenhorn warrior stood tall as the youngest Bangladeshi batsman to score a hundred on debut. Ash had arrived, and would stay, if only to launch the millions of us fans in the inexplicable, decade-long mixture of pure delight that would provide a pleasing sensation stretching to the very roots of our hair, with the dream-crushing letdowns that would repeatedly make us want to uproot that same hair in frustration.
The demon that put a spell on his batting is yet to let go, as was evident against the Irish, when Ash once again deployed one of his now-characteristic ‘nothing’ shots precisely when we needed him to take charge of the Tigers’ innings and stretch it to somewhere respectable.
But amidst all the disappointments and frustrations what amazingly continues to thrive — despite himself! — is his unbridled, never-say-die spirit; as the records book would suggest, rarely has there been an against-all-odds win for the Tigers when Ash didn’t have a hand in it. Thankfully, our skipper Shakib is not evasive to this bit of knowledge and in an inspired, gut-felt gamble, especially when the Irish looked set on course to victory, Shakib brought on the hitherto underrated leg-spinners of Ashraful.
Ed Joyce, England’s ODI opener not too long ago and now the backbone of Ireland’s batting, was soon enticed to spoon a simple return catch to the bowler and the other Irish batting pillar, A R White found his furniture rattled with a googly that Abdul Quader might have been proud of. Mind you, these were wicket number three and four and inside of the first 20 overs of the Irish innings! And the rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve heard a few Tiger fans, who I thought lacked the ability to read beyond hard statistics, say that Ash’s prolonged celebration after he got the first of his two wickets was ‘undignified, as if Bangladesh had already won the match’. I’m compelled to tell them that that precisely was Ash’s purpose; irrespective of who’s saying what, creating a charged up, do-or-die mindset for his team-mates, lifting their spirits, making them believe they’re going to win the match, was what Ash wanted to do.
From that moment on, the collective body language of the Tigers was transformed; nobody misfielded, gave away an extra run or dropped a catch thenceforth and kept tightening the noose on the Irish neck till it went limp. This brought back memories of what Shane Warne did to his team-mates in the 1999 World Cup match against the Proteas when his extended roars lifted the Aussies just enough to come back from the dead and take the-cup-that-counts home.
Ashraful may score only once in say, five matches but his sheer presence, the natural spirit that he effects on the field or in the dressing room does something to the whole team that no coach could ever match. And let’s not forget that whenever Ash delivers with the bat, Tigers win.
Australia and South Africa are the toughest sides to beat and so far we’ve won only one ODI against each. We owe both the victories to the fearless display of aggression by one of our batsmen. No points for guessing who he is.
Shobhon Shahabuddin is a cricket enthusiast.