This article is from Wisden India.
By Dileep Premachandran
Less than two decades ago, Bangladesh were cricket's Afghanistan, the new kids everyone welcomed into the neighbourhood. At the 1999 World Cup, they were able to create genuine optimism about the future. They beat Scotland in Edinburgh, and memorably upset Pakistan - eventual finalists - at the County Ground in Northampton. Only Australia, with Adam Gilchrist and Tom Moody in punishing mood, blew them away.
"Perhaps, it's time to ask ourselves whether this condescension is justified, or whether it's just indicative of the preening arrogance and lack of patience that typifies cricket's elite nations."
On the eve of their 27th World Cup outing, it's fairly evident that the initial affection and fascination have given way to a kind of contempt. Perhaps, it's time to ask ourselves whether this condescension is justified, or whether it's just indicative of the preening arrogance and lack of patience that typifies cricket's elite nations.
Instead of emotion, let's deal purely in facts. Bangladesh have won eight of their 26 games in the competition, reaching the Super Eight stage in 2007, when they eliminated India in the first phase. Four of those victories - Pakistan (1999), India (2007), South Africa (2007) and England (2011) - have come against the established cricket powers.
In their first four World Cups, Sri Lanka played 25 matches. They won just four, one of them against Zimbabwe (1992), then an associate nation. Few asked for them to be relegated, and the big-picture approach was vindicated when Arjuna Ranatunga's side won the competition in 1996. In the new millennium, the Lankans have been - by a distance - Asia's most consistent side, reaching at least the semis since 2003.
The enthusiasm about Afghanistan must be tempered by the reality of what Bangladesh cricket has gone through since 1999. The great majority of their games continue to be against the 'lesser' sides. Since the last World Cup, Bangladesh have played just 50 ODIs, half of India's tally. As many as 14 have been against Zimbabwe, and 11 against West Indies, two other teams marooned in the shallows. So, in nearly four years, they have managed 25 matches against the Big Seven. India have played England 22 times, and Australia on 12 occasions. We're not talking of even remotely level playing fields.
The flip side cannot be ignored. In the 12 months after their most successful World Cup campaign (2007), Bangladesh played 17 matches against India, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, South Africa and Pakistan. With the exception of an abandoned match against India, they lost every single one. Instead of building on something tangible, they regressed alarmingly.
But if we're going to penalise sides for underperforming in certain periods, where does it end? India didn't win a single ODI on tours of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in the last 18 months. They did win in England, but only because their hosts were playing a brand of cricket that was last considered effective in the 1990s.
Bangladesh lost to Afghanistan at the Asia Cup in 2014, and they would certainly not be taking this game lightly, especially after Mashrafe Mortaza, the captain, expressed his displeasure at the attitude of some of his players in the two warm-up matches that they played. And whatever the rest of the world thinks, the millions of fans back home expect. Having endured a disappointing campaign at home in 2011, this is a generation's chance to make amends. Of the teams in their group, England and Sri Lanka have certainly had their wobbles in recent times. The expectations are understandable.
"We like to play at home because a lot of crowds come, and it doesn't matter who we're playing against," said Mortaza. "But I think you guys will be surprised tomorrow, again, because a lot of supporters will come. So we are looking forward to it, and hopefully we'll play our best."
Mortaza refused to be drawn into comparisons with Afghanistan, who seem to be the Cinderella side of choice after their remarkable progress in the past decade, but he did admit that his team would take inspiration from Ireland's comprehensive victory over West Indies in Nelson.
Part of the on-field challenge for Bangladesh is to get the bowling right. On home turf, they can afford to be spin-centric. On these pitches, spin is unlikely to be anything more than a supporting act. "We have some very good quicks," said Mortaza, whose bowling was the spur for the famous victory over India in 2007. "Yes, they're still young, but they have the potential and hopefully they'll do their job. I feel that our spinners are world-class and they can bowl on any wicket."
With Mohammad Ashraful banned after being found guilty of match-fixing in the Bangladesh Premier League, Mortaza is also the last link to one of the team's most feted triumphs, against Australia at Sophia Gardens in 2005. Since then, they have had the highs of 2007, and the lows of 2011, when the fans were irate after the capitulation against West Indies.
"That was a great moment for Bangladesh cricket, and the supporters, because I think they [Australia] had the best team at that time. Ash [Ashraful] got a good hundred, and a lot of players played really well. But, it was a long time back, so we can't think about it. We have to think positive and approach tomorrow that way," he said.
That applies equally to those watching them. The negatives have been many, but to reduce Bangladesh cricket in the last 16 years to the sum total of those failings does no one any favours.
Dileep Premachandran is Editor-in-chief at Wisden India. You can follow him on Twitter @SpiceBoxofEarthSuggest a correction