Sydney: On Tuesday afternoon, Bangladesh captain Mashrafe Mortaza looked relaxed as a peach. Such expressions are often affected, or a kind of performance for the press, but there was nothing of that in Mortaza’s demeanour. His kind of relaxation can only come from the certainty that no matter what happens from now on, his team will return to Dhaka as heroes. This team has already reached the Promised Land. Everything else is a bonus.
How India’s players must look towards Bangladesh and long for that unconditional affection. India may have the most formidable travelling support of any team, which will once again make its presence felt at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on Thursday, but these are fans who travel to the stadium with an entitlement towards victory. These are fans who can turn as easily on their own team as lustily they cheer them.
There was a reason why neither team was willing to prick the other, not even for fun. Bangladesh’s best chance is to find the giant slumbering or half-awake; it would be foolish on their part to charge them up. The Indian machine, on the other hand, doesn’t want to raise the pre-game stakes, determined to treat this as another game. No Sehwag-like jibes about Bangladesh being an “ordinary team”. Lots of praise instead.
At India’s pre-match presser, Suresh Raina spoke about how it was even more difficult to play Ireland or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) than one of the major sides: “You haven’t played their bowlers enough, and you can’t afford to be too complacent.” Bangladesh’s progress in this World Cup has been such that they would scoff at being compared with the above two sides, yet they are not Australia or Sri Lanka. If India had been facing either of those opponents, the pressure of coming through would have been too immense to worry about alternatives. Now winning is taken so much for granted that India’s battle is the battle within. Against complacency. Against thinking of the semifinal at Sydney already.
At a glance, most things seem to be in India’s favour. On Tuesday, Mahendra Singh Dhoni issued a statement calling on Indians to fill the MCG, but he needn’t have. More than 80,000, most of them Indian fans, will be there. Once close to full, the MCG’s intimidating atmosphere is hard to describe. For a team whose support is outnumbered, it can feel like a prison. South Africa couldn’t cope, Bangladesh will need to summon nerves of steel simply to stay afloat.
The MCG’s large outfields will help India’s spinners exert control. Bangladesh has a good batting line-up—Mahmudullah is the fifth top-scorer of this World Cup—but few power-hitters. Their batsman, practising sixes at the venue, struggled to clear the rope. That is no discredit to them, it is simply the vastness of the MCG. If the Indian batsmen get a start, the large outfields will run Bangladesh ragged; they struggled against Sri Lanka here. That, too, is the MCG.
If this was business or academia, boardroom meetings would have been concluded, the doctoral thesis handed over. And yet this is sport, where all statistics, clear logical determinations, have to be suspended. If sport was purely mathematical or scientific, Sri Lanka wouldn’t have lost to Bhutan, the world’s lowest-ranked team, in a football World Cup qualifier.
“I am not thinking about them (Bangladesh),” said Raina. “I just want my team to play positive cricket.” Tickets to Sydney, where India will play the semis if they win this one, have been booked. Tickets at the Sydney Cricket Ground bought. The Indian machine can’t come unstuck. But then there is sport.