DB relayed live footage, photo journalists stayed glued to their view finder and scores of fans watched adoringly as Mashrafe Mortaza strode towards the centre square of the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium in this suburb of Mirpur with a singular intent: to hammer the innocuous off-spin of a team assistant out of the park.
But as soon as he got down to business, another thrashing began on the sidelines almost concurrently. An intruder was caught, purportedly trying to make away with a scribe’s equipment that was lying about on the ground. Cue vigilante justice.
Amid the shower of blows that pelted down on him, the alleged thief would have considered himself unlucky. It must have looked a pretty safe bet. The way Bangladesh’s ODI captain commands this nation’s undivided attention, the intruder would have escaped with the desired goods nine out of ten times. In the event, it turned out be that rare one time.
After the poor fellow was dragged out of the tunnel at cow corner to be handed over to security, Mortaza planted a six in the same area. The focus was back on him, and it remained so for the rest of the evening.
The 31-year-old Mashrafe Mortaza, who possesses a calm, wise countenance, is to Bangladesh what perhaps Kapil Dev was to India in the 80s. A decade and a half ago, it was he who showed it to the world, and perhaps more importantly to the average Bangladeshi, that they can bowl fast, too. Unlike Kapil, however, injuries plagued him throughout his career and he turned out to be a somewhat lesser bowler than what the promise was when he made his debut against Zimbabwe in 2001.
Mortaza has taken 193 wickets in 151 matches at 30.73, which may sound impressive, but not so much when you take into account that fact he has played more than a third of those games (56) and taken almost half of his scalps (94) against associate teams and Zimbabwe. And yet, Bangladesh’s faith in him and his superhero powers is unshakeable.
Legend about Mortaza
On Tuesday, as we watched the Tigers practice at the stadium,DB told me a legend about Mortaza. “It is believed here that whenever Mashrafe gives the team an early breakthrough against India, Bangladesh win the match,” he said, before specifying that by “early breakthrough” he meant “inside the first three overs”.
Given that Bangladesh have won only three out of 29 matches against India, it was easy to crosscheck this proclamation. Indeed, on the first two occasions, December 26, 2004 in Dhaka and March 17, 2007 in Port-of-Spain, he took out Virender Sehwag “early”. And Mortaza didn’t play the third match that Bangladesh won, in the 2012 Asia Cup, so that doesn’t count.
The problem with this legend is that it has occurred on too few occasions. In fact, based on those very numbers, Mortaza could be accused of not having given Bangladesh enough of those early breakthroughs. (Caution: Don’t dare utter this here, unless you long for a fate similar to the aforementioned thief’s).
Anyway, the myth was finally busted conclusively exactly a year ago, on June 17, 2014, when Mortaza trapped Ajinkya Rahane in front in the very first over, but the Tigers went on to lose the match. But perhaps in the collective psyche of Bangladeshi fans, bowling India out for 105 must have felt like a win. Hence the persistence of the legend.At any rate, facts should not come in the way of a good story, especially if it’s a feel-good story.
Though, it could be argued that the Bangladesh of today needs no made-up story to feel good. Theirs has been one of the best teams in ODIs this year, having won 6 out of nine ODIs. And they don’t rely heavily on Mortaza anymore.
Taskin Ahmed and Rubel Hossain, for example, have taken more wickets than their leader this year. Bangladesh can win without him, too. They have played nine matches this year, two of which without Mortaza. In those two games, they ran World Cup runners-up New Zealand close in March and hammered Pakistan in April.
“We have a few young players who are at their best and can surprise India in ODIs,” said Mortaza, in a pre-match press conference on Wednesday.
“We are the fastest improving ODI side in the world right now. Bangladesh are definitely among the best in the world in ODIs. The series win against Pakistan was a major boost. We have the bowling attack to unsettle any opposition.”
But a certain amount of diffidence against India remains. Come tomorrow, therefore, and Bangladeshis will still be hoping that Mortaza, more than any other bowler, fetches them an early wicket and gives them the lead in the three-match series against Team India.
This hope, however, rests on his fitness. There remains a bit of doubt on whether he would play tomorrow after a freak injury to the hand earlier this month. It occurred when the cycle rickshaw he was on was hit by a bus.
Improbable as it may sound in the context of a superstar cricketer, it’s not unusual for Mortaza to take a cycle rickshaw. Unlike most of his teammates, another local journalist tells me, he does it often.
As I try to see the man behind the myth, the journalist offers an explanation as to what Mortaza means to Bangladesh. It’s Copa America time, therefore he fittingly uses a football analogy.“He is like Carlos Tevez is to Argentina. A people’s player.”