THE world champions Australia were humbled yesterday in Cardiff by the lowest-ranked international cricket side in the world, Bangladesh, and in some fashion as Mohammed Ashraful, just 20 years old and struggling for form up until now, scored a brilliant run-a-ball century. It is by far the best win in Bangladesh history, eclipsing the one-day defeats of India and Pakistan, the latter back in the 1999 World Cup.
What makes the win all the more impressive was the manner of it as they started poorly and stuttered to 51-2 in the 16th over.
Still needing another 199 to win, few gave Bangladesh a chance, and yet Ashraful and captain Habibul Bashar put on 130 in a fourth-wicket partnership that stunned the Australians. Not once did they panic, preferring to consolidate slowly and accumulate runs until the final 15 overs when the rate required hovered between seven and eight.
Even then this most famous victory looked unlikely as Ponting was able to summon Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie to bowl the final overs. However, sport is frequently decided by momentum and it was all with Bangladesh. The pivotal moment was when Ashraful was dropped on 54 by Gillespie on the long-leg boundary. Despite wearing sunglasses and a headband straight from disco-diva central casting to keep his hair pinned back, Gillespie failed to pick up the ball in the difficult sunlight - as the orb lowered was directly in his eyes - and missed the ball.
However, when Bashar was needlessly run out in the 44th over with 48 still needed, it seemed that Bangladesh would panic in the crucial final overs, but Ashraful was joined by the astonishingly calm Aftab Ahmed. The 19-year-old impressed against England in the second Test at Chester-le-Street and the one-day match on Thursday, but his 21 in only 13 balls settled any nerves. He was responsible for guiding Ashraful to his century, only the second one-day century by a Bangladesh cricketer, and when the moment arrived, Ashraful knelt and kissed the Cardiff wicket. Sadly, his superb match-winning innings was over next ball when he hoisted Gillespie to long-on.
Even then, the experienced commentators fancied the proven winners, Australia, but flawed thinking and execution by captain and bowlers allowed easy runs. Mohammed Rafique, the new batsman is a powerful hitter of the ball, and yet McGrath offered him a long half-volley first ball that he smashed for four. With the equation down to 23 in 18 balls, boundaries were precious and Australia failed to prevent them. Singles were available every ball, but another boundary by Rafique further reduced the run-rate needed.
As Gillespie started the final over, only seven runs were required. Gillespie had bowled numerous slower balls and off-cutters in the previous overs and instead of trying to fly-hack them through the off-side as he had previously, Ahmed set himself to swing high and hard to leg. He connected magnificently and the ball sailed over the boundary for six. A scampered single next ball and the win was complete and dejected Australians wandered from the pitch as the rest of the Bangladesh team raced on to the outfield to celebrate.
It is a serious dent to the Australians who already have suffered two defeats in the week, last Monday to England in the Twenty20 and on Wednesday to Somerset. After that match, Ponting "read the riot act" and when asked yesterday about the time to panic, he responded: "it's getting there - trust me." We may get a better idea about how advanced any panic is when the Australians take on England at Bristol today.
It did not help Ponting that he was missing his best one- day bowler, Brett Lee, to injury caused by a Freddie Flintoff bouncer that bruised his shoulder. But another withdrawal from the team, however, was self-inflicted. Andrew Symonds was omitted at the last minute and an announcement explained he had "breached team rules and a full investigation will take place this evening". Clearly all is not well in the Australian camp.
An elated Bashar said: "The happiest man in the world today. To be honest I thought 250 was a bit too much for us."
The target could have been a lot fewer, and the fact that Australia reached that amount was due to some shrewd and watchful batting of their own, particularly by Damien Martyn who delivered a masterclass in batting the final 10 overs of an innings as 93 was added.
Worryingly for Australia, though, they started poorly again, despite Ponting electing to bat first. Adam Gilchrist was dismissed second ball and when Ponting followed lbw in the sixth over, it looked a bad call by the captain as the pitch offered help to the seam bowlers. It was a decision he regretted at the end of the match as his bowlers suffered on a drier pitch. But that cannot diminish the wonderful story of Ashraful and the glorious Bangladesh victory, who displayed all the aggressive and energetic attributes that one normally associates with their opponents.
They may have been disappointing in the Test matches, but their greater experience in one-day cricket suggests this may not be the only shock result in the coming weeks.