An all-round effort helped Bangladesh beat Pakistan and qualify for final against India. © AFP

An all-round effort helped Bangladesh beat Pakistan and qualify for final against India. © AFP

It was easily the most gripping contest of the Asia Cup 2016, the high stakes adding to the drama.

Soumya Sarkar first and then Mahmudullah and Mashrafe Mortaza did it for Bangladesh, scripting a fantastic chase to send the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium in Mirpur into delirium, the target reached with five wickets in hand and five balls to spare when Mahmudullah slogged Anwar Ali for four over midwicket.

Earlier, despite Sarfraz Ahmed and Shoaib Malik playing excellent hands, the Bangladesh bowlers did enough in Mustafizur Rahman’s absence to restrict Pakistan to 129 for 7.

The result put Bangladesh in the final, to be played on Sunday against India.

Tamim Iqbal, fresh from paternity leave, set the tone for Bangladesh’s reply, flicking Mohammad Amir behind square for a six in the first over of the innings. He didn’t do much after that as Mohammad Irfan had him lbw, but Sarkar and Sabbir Rahman displayed a complete lack of fear as they faced the might of Amir and Irfan with pluck. Not always did they have their way, ball beating bat often, but they didn’t seem too fazed, playing their strokes and giving Bangladesh exactly the sort of start they needed.

There were a few streaky shots, none more so than a senseless slog from Sabbir that just evaded the man at mid-off, but when the two of them connected, like Sarkar’s pull off Amir for four, they looked very good. Sabbir looked a bit too eager to get a move on, though, and stepped out to be bowled by one from Shahid Afridi that drifted in beautifully to go between bat and pad.

But Sarkar got a move on after that, owning Anwar Ali in his second over. Anwar pitched short and shorter. Sarkar stepped out and pulled the first one for a really big six, took a few singles with Mushfiqur Rahim, and then pulled the last one viciously for four more. Fifteen runs came off that over, and Bangladesh had reached 65 for 2 from 10 overs, needing exactly the same number of runs from the remaining 10.

But, Sarkar’s dismissal, bowled by a yorker from Amir, who had bowled shorter than usual in his first spell, brought Pakistan back into the game. They nosed ahead when Rahim was out lbw trying to reverse sweep Shoaib Malik, though the ball had pitched outside leg stump, and Shakib Al Hasan was bowled by Amir trying a scoop.

But Mahmudullah, ice in his veins, and Mortaza were still there, and they took Bangladesh closer, inch by inch, and the pressure told on Mohammad Sami, till then Pakistan’s best bowler, as he bowled two no-balls (Mortaza was caught off one) in a 15-run 19th over. Knocking off the three remaining runs after that was a breeze. Mahmudullah ended unbeaten on a 15-ball 22 and Mortaza on 12 from seven balls.

Pakistan’s innings was about two phases. The first one lasted 13 overs, in which Bangladesh picked up four wickets and Pakistan managed just 54 runs. The PowerPlay overs had ended with the scoreboard reading 20 for 3, the struggles of the Pakistan top three continuing, though Mohammad Hafeez was unlucky to be given out lbw to Mortaza – the ball hit him around his thighs and would have sailed harmlessly over the stumps.

Taskin Ahmed and Al-Amin Hossain, the main pacers in Mustafizur Rahman’s absence, and Arafat Sunny were bowling beautifully at this stage, and Pakistan’s call to bat first seemed a really poor one. Umar Akmal made it worse, playing a horrendous slice to hole out at deep backward point when the need of the hour was consolidation.

Consolidation is what Sarfraz and Malik opted for – the dot balls piled up, but a platform was laid. After they had stemmed the rot and steadied the ship, the second phase of Pakistan’s innings started.

At that stage, Sarfraz was on 20 from 22 balls. He scored 38 more in the next 20 he faced as Pakistan scored 75 runs in the last seven overs.

It started with the last ball of the 14th over, bowled by Sunny, and Malik stepped out to play the perfect lofted straight drive crashing into the sightscreen. Sarfraz took a four and a six from Mortaza in the next over, and Malik used brute force to pick up two boundaries in Shakib’s next over. Suddenly, after 16 overs, Pakistan were 91 for 4, 130 definitely on the cards.

They almost got there, ending on 129 for 7 as Anwar holed out at deep midwicket off the last ball of the innings.

Malik had fallen after giving Pakistan the impetus they needed, slog-sweeping Sunny to deep midwicket after a 30-ball 41, and Afridi went soon after for a duck, slogging Al-Amin’s full toss in roughly the same direction.

But Sarfraz was still there, and found in Anwar a willing partner. Entrusted with the last few overs, Al-Amin and Taskin focussed on pace, but that was easy meat for the batsmen. Sarfraz was outstanding under pressure, keeping his wits about him to end unbeaten on 58 from 42 balls, while Anwar showed a fair bit more batting nous that many of the men who came above him in the order in his nine-ball 13.