Murshida Khatun, the only left-hander to play for Bangladesh women, wanted to fulfill two dreams on Monday night. The first of those - to represent her country in a world tournament - came true and she struck an impressive 26-ball 30 against India at the WACA. The other, deferred by a viral fever that ruled India batter Smriti Mandhana out of the match, was realised the following morning at the Perth Airport.
"I always had a feeling that's the only thing I might end up doing if I ever met her: just take a selfie. Otai amar jonnye onek boro prappyo [That alone means a lot to me]," Khatun, sporting glasses like an early avatar of Mandhana, tells ESPNcricinfo. "I was too nervous to utter a word when I met her, let alone tell her she is my hero… you know that kind of thing that happens with everything jumbling in your head when you first meet your idol after waiting for ages?"
Khatun was naturally right-handed. But she took to batting left-handed after watching her older brother. Just like Mandhana. Here's another connection. Khatun's desire to step up to the big stage dates back to a milestone in Mandhana's own career.
As she watched the India batter compile her maiden World Cup hundred against West Indies in the 2017 ODI World Cup, Khatun, 17 at the time, did a self-appraisal of just "how hard and diligently" she needed to work on her batting to be able to represent Bangladesh.
"I grew up watching Tamim [Iqbal] bhai, because aside from Bangladesh men's [games], there was not much of other cricket to be watched," Khatun, who is known by her moniker 'Happy', says. "But that hundred from Smriti Mandhana - her technique, her confidence on an English pitch - was just so refreshing to see. Especially as a left-hander, I loved how she stayed there [till the end] to win India the game."
Within a year of that World Cup match, Khatun would go on to make her debut for Bangladesh. Since then she has played 12 international matches but the "biggest and most fascinating" one of them played out before a record 5280-crowd at the WACA on Monday.
"I got a bit nervous when I arrived at the stadium," Khatun recalls. "There was so much noise, so many media people and also because it was my first game against India. But I told myself, 'This is where you need to bat, this is where you need to perform. None of this is going to go away, so just calm down and get a partnership going.'"
After Khatun lost her opening partner seven balls into the match, she strung a 39-run second-wicket stand with Sanjida Islam to get Bangladesh off to a brisk start but fell to pacer Arundhati Reddy lofting the ball to mid-off in the eighth over.
"They would keep telling my ammu (mother) that it's unbecoming of a girl to play sport... But that never deterred me from sneaking out of the house every evening to go watch my [male] cousins play"
"I like Smriti Mandhana's pull and lofted cover drive a lot," Khatun says. "I like playing the cover drive [along the ground] myself, but have been working on lofting the shots better - mid-on, mid-off, and power-hitting. It's something Anju [Jain] ma'am [the Bangladesh head coach] and Devika ma'am [Palshikar, the assistant coach] have been working on specifically in my game.
"Also, spin. That's another area I am trying to getting better in. I enjoy pace on the bat, so playing Shikha Pandey [the medium-pacer] wasn't difficult, but the variations of Arundhati [also a quick bowler] aapu (sister) troubled me a little."
A native of Khulna's Kushtia district, home to Habibul Bashar and Anamul Haque, Khatun concedes being one of the few left-handed batters on the Bangladesh domestic circuit has helped push her case for selection at the international level.
"But she's got her own strengths, too," Palshikar, herself a former India cricketer, says. "She may be lacking in exposure and experience at the moment, but she's hard-working enough to offset that a little bit.
"She is focused, patient, and can keep the scoreboard ticking with singles and twos when the boundaries dry up, so Anju di made sure we always kept her in the side in the past year. Only if she didn't do well in three-four games, then only we rested her. Otherwise, her 20-30 runs, too, are quite crucial for us. Besides, she's keen on rectifying errors and rectifying errors."
Khatun attributes her "wanting to stay longer at the crease" to a "painstakingly-cultivated passion for the game" ever since her days as a gully cricketer. Even the criticism from relatives and people in my neighbourhood for doing "something so audaciously boy-like" only spurred her onward.
"They would keep telling my ammu (mother) that it's unbecoming of a girl to play sport. To do so on top of that wearing T-shirt, or pants, or shirts was like an assault on the Bangladeshi standards of morality," Khatun says. "But that never deterred me from sneaking out of the house every evening to go watch my [male] cousins play.
"I used to go stand in one corner of the field and observe how they would drive or defend. Sometimes I'd even go down the steps of a pond nearby to fetch the ball in the hope that, in return, they would let me stay and watch their cricket. I worked that hard to just watch the game, understand it better."
As her fascination for batting grew, a 12-year-old Khatun pleaded with her father to enroll her at a girl's cricket academy. But the dearth of visibility and information around the women's game meant her father could not find a coaching centre even though he had been supportive of his daughter's wishes.
"There was so much noise, so many media people... But I told myself, 'This is where you need to bat, this is where you need to perform. None of this is going to go away" Khatun on her first World Cup game
In about a year, a Dhaka-based cousin working in the media suggested Khatun apply for admission at the Bangladesh Krira Shiksha Protishthan (BKSP), the country's premier sports institute that only started accepting female cricketers since 2007. Although Khatun admits to being "far from being familiar with the rules of the game or all the fielding positions", her batting had impressed the coaches enough during a month-long camp that she got into the BKSP in 2013.
A move up to the Bangladesh Women's Premier League followed, with intermittent appearances in the Best XI, but a "satisfactory performance, with a decent number of runs", Khatun says, came only a year later leading to a maiden call-up for a month-long national camp. A drop in form between late 2014 and the close of 2016 meant an international debut wouldn't arrive till May 2018.
"Bhoy peye gechilam ektu Ismail-er pace dekhe I felt intimidated by [Shabnim] Ismail's pace," Khatun says about the limited-overs tour of South Africa, where she made a combined seven runs in three ODIs and one in her only T20I. "Ismail is one of the best and quickest bowlers I have faced. But thankfully, that fear has gone away since that tour."
Although Khatun has only 55 runs in five ODIs and 132 runs in seven T20Is in a near-two-year international career, head coach Jain, who formerly captained and coached India, believes the young batter has made good strides in the recent past towards playing with more purpose.
"During the South Africa Emerging tour [in July last year], she looked quite good and more comfortable playing in South Africa [than her debut series] and since then there has been no looking back for her," Jain says. "We knew we had to get her into our squad [for the T20 World Cup]. In the last six months, her shot-selection, fitness and range has improved - she's added cuts and sweeps [to her arsenal]."
But her standout stroke, according to Palshikar, whose tenure as assistant coach with the Indian side in 2014 coincided with the early days of Mandhana's international career, is the cover drive. "I see glimpses of a younger, rookie Smriti in Happy," Palshikar says, smiling. "I have watched Smriti at the NCA [National Cricket Academy] camps as well, so I think there are many similarities between Happy's inside-out [shot] and the cover drive in particular, which she plays quite beautifully, look similar to Smriti's."
"Sometimes I'd even go down the steps of a pond nearby to fetch the ball in the hope that, in return, they would let me stay and watch their cricket. I worked that hard to just watch the game" Khatun on following her cousins around as a kid
Like Palshikar, Jain believes Khatun's inclusion in Bangladesh's T20 World Cup squad boosts their hopes of accomplishing a goal they had set out to achieve at the previous edition of the tournament in 2018: "To improve our rankings, so we don't have to play the Qualifiers." Making the semi-finals will be crucial to that end.
"We've been looking for a left-hander for some time now," Jain adds. "Devika and I are about to complete two years [with the team], but we haven't found many. With Happy coming in at the top, we have more options rotating the line-up as per the requirements of the innings; we get more flexibility. Plus, she's shown more consistency than some of our [other] openers. And you know how troubling a consistent left-hander in the opening position can be for bowlers…"
Khatun's idol, the leading run-scorer in women's limited-overs cricket since 2018, is testament to Jain's claim.