Test cricket for me has always been a layered novel that unfolds at its own pace and reveals the truth underneath, often about myself. An ODI is like a well knit short story with a beginning, a middle, and the end – and a 20/20 match is something akin to watching a crappy sitcom because there’s nothing better to veg-out to. I prefer novels to short stories, but then again, there’s always Haruki Murakami, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Never had much time to veg-out.
Having grown up in suburban DC and Paris, and later having spent the most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was happily preoccupied with other pastimes such as surfing, baseball and ice hockey. Cricket was slowly fading out of my life like a forgotten lover’s kiss, until THE event of 1997 when my cousin Renata told me what just happened, and what was happening on the streets of Dhaka and every other place in Bangladesh. That unforgettable jolt resurrected a family tradition and I haven’t been able to turn away since. I am not a cricket expert and do not claim to be one. Like countless other Bangladeshis living and dying with the fate of our Tigers, I’m learning to love the game - perhaps a little too passionately. Like most other Bangladeshi Tiger fans, I too am exasperated with the lack of temperament and consistency that prevent our cricketers from becoming what the best they can be in both forms of the game, and stagnate the development of our young cricket culture at this high level.
The first test. The Boishakhi rain strikes again and the high anticipation has less time to become anything other than a draw. Wasim Jaffer is unlucky again, Mashrafee gets him with the first ball. Shahdat settles into the better line and becomes a handful. Ganguly, our beloved Dada from the other Bengal gets a 100. Tendulkar joins the festivities. Some good bowling from Zaheer Khan and the top half of our batting order collapses again. RP Singh surprises us all with his balanced bowling, despite the somewhat unsightly hairdo. The inevitable follow on looms over the horizon. Enter Mashrafee to reaffirm our manhood. His skillful 79 saves the match. Apprentice Shahadat Rajib supports him with the bat. Oops, here comes the last day. The rain assisted draw. Then Dravid declares. A sporting declaration. Rohan Gavasker is baffled. It’s safe for us to go for it. The chances for actually pulling it off? Almost none. Almost. But we should try, right? Wow, it looks like we’re going for it. The heart starts to beat faster, impossible thoughts saturate the mind. Those glorious uncertainties. Then it stops. We are baffled, and a lot more than just a little PO-ed. It was safe to go for it, so why didn’t we? Sure we couldn’t have won in all likelihood, but WHY DIDN’T WE TRY??? It was safe to go for it. So much for that manhood. Then the consolation. Mashrafee Bin Murtaza, Man of the Match. Manhood salvaged somewhat.
The second test. Shahadat and Enam out, Sharif and Rasel in. Dav and Bashar try to defy WG Grace with a little persuasion from the curator. Where did they find this guy? Wasim Jaffer unlucky no more. A ton, then retired hurt. Pretty wife, sweet smile. Karthik close to a ton, then retired hurt. He’ll be back to get his. Supportive wife. Dravid, a ton. Tendulkar, another ton. Dead pitch, wickets not falling. Records galore. Then Dada falls and misses out on the party, unlucky. We’re done for and it’s only day ONE. The pitch was never alive, and starts to decompose before we were told it would. Our turn to bat. Zaheer officially gets his form back. We collapse. Follow on. Looks like another collapse. Nothing impressive about the crane-like Sharma yet, except the freakish height. The heat starts to open cracks on the pitch. Joy. Here comes the lanky Kumble and the portly Powar with those red Oakleys to finish things off. Enter the skipper to be to set the tone, not if Kumble can help it. Early flight back home, all nice and reassured? Maybe not as soon as they think. More on this later… Pilot can’t deliver the other century. Here comes Mashrafee, ready to shoulder what’s left of the fight. More heroism before the inevitable defeat. Zaheer MOM. Tendulkar MOS. Umps, worse than ever. India wins series. Dravid shows his class. Bye neighbors, thanks for the lessons. Still two days left.
Anyway. Now to other observations.
Our top five batsmen in particular have a history of not harnessing their compulsions, whatever those may be, and nurture their natural talent through the disciplined cultivation of sound technique. They do not seem to value their wicket as much as they need to, all too often collapsing into the grim realities of yet another broken promise, and dragging the top half of the batting order with them deep inside the proverbial hole pretty much impossible for the lower order to claw out of. Yet Mashrafee fights on – another story for another time.
The question is why? Are our expectations too high, too unrealistic? Are we being too impatient? Being a younger cricket culture, are our players too inexperienced at this level, especially when it comes to the all important psychological aspects of the game? Or are they, if we focus only on the young guns of the team, too young and too far from the expected peak of their careers, say around the age of 28? Possibly, maybe.
Are they simply not good enough? We know that they are.
What if the question instead is how? How does for example, Muhammad Ashraful Matin, by far the most talented batsman we have produced to date, play a flawless knock and then can be duped into throwing it all away, again? Being as experienced as our young captain-to-be is, does he not value his wicket? Does he not care? Does he need a shrink, or two? Before going any further, I’d like to skip back and revisit his delicious and heroic 41 ball 67 from the last test match.
With time already ticking towards the inevitable familiarity of yet another innings defeat, and perhaps motivated by not having the opportunity go for it during the dying moments of the first test match – irrespective of the slimmest to possibilities to actually snatch victory from the jaws of high improbability – he brushed aside Zaheer Khan’s great delivery from the nightmarish first innings, and played a short yet operatic knock composed of twelve beautifully controlled 4s and two better executed 6s that told the world that we will NOT fade quietly into the evening sky, because that’s simply NOT what Tigers do. He left the ones that should have been left alone. He defended when he had to. He rotated the strike. He put away the bad ones and manufactured strokes from the not so bad deliveries. His deft aggression that afternoon will not be forgotten, and the ecstatic gamut of pure elation and pondering the impossible will come back to reverberate and linger deep inside our collective heart, every time it is remembered by those of us privileged enough to witness the little epic while it lasted. The well deserved swagger vanished from the body language of Indian bowlers faster than raindrop on the scorched concrete walkways just outside the stadium. Just when the promise of the early flight home seemed just a few more moments away, our crown prince appeared and they unexpectedly found themselves lost in a field of lost children – all except one. The great Anil Kumble. Ever the relentless artist of incessant calculations, he kept on thinking, planning, probing, and making little, critical adjustments until that perfectly ambiguous 50-50 delivery to a batsman who’s seeing everything early, and has ample time in his hands to do whatever he desires with whatever that’s bowled at him. Ashraful could have nudged it along for an easy single, or drive it hard with the lower percentage shot that may get him out. Trapped by the master into overestimating himself just that little, he made the other choice went low and hard. The shot didn’t dip as fast as it could have, and Tendulkar’s acrobatic catch just millimeters above the dry Mirpur grass bristling the back of his able hands did the rest. The classy Rahul Dravid and his mixed bag of genuine promises, revitalized by excellent performances all around, got to return home early from the much needed morale boosting tour. The wounded pride was licked well as all hard work paid off once again.
How does Ashraful get induced into making the wrong choice when he has to make the right one for himself, the team he is going to lead into that better future, and the 150 million Bangladeshis waiting for their hero to deliver the impossible? Maybe, just maybe because: 1) we don’t play enough 4-day and limited over matches, enough matches to teach our batsmen the finer points of staying out there in the middle long enough to build a useful innings, playing each ball according to its merit, and learning to value their wicket by making higher percentage choices; 2) the domestic cricket we do play, does not have the quality to sufficiently prepare our batsmen before they face bowlers from obviously better quality cricket systems from older, more seasoned cricket infrastructures and cultures; and most importantly, 3) our selection process needs a better, more systematic and transparent approach to identify talent, allow it to evolve and grow in confidence through a series of incremental steps, and help turn that talent into consistent performances.
Batsmen with technical limitations and slash or irreversible compulsions – without the quality domestic cricket that can create better opportunities to make small yet tangible improvements – often create extra pressure on the more talented ones with better grip on those issues. Misconstrued conventional wisdom, such as the one obviously prevailing in the minds of our veteran selectors – namely, the idea of temperament somehow meaning strokeless, slow, and hardly venturing out of the shell like a turtle if turtles could bat – only add to that pressure as those strokeless, slow and dot-ball prone batsmen without the demonstrable ability to rotate the strike, do not, cannot put enough runs on the board before more talented batsman take their guard, typically a bit too late in both forms the game. Or, if they don’t manage to successfully hog the crease, as is the case most of the time, the more talented batsmen to follow find themselves in the game too early, with fewer wickets in hand, and having to play roles someone else was supposed to play. Tough to rebuild the innings before it has a chance to start. Tougher still to rebuild, consolidate, and anchor the type that gives you a chance to win. One plays to win or lose trying the last time I checked. More often than not, it’s mostly about those runs on the board by the end of the day. I fail to see why a 50 ball 50 is somehow worse than a 100 ball 50 if it adversely effects the outcome of the game, nor not effect it at all. The best openers and anchors in both forms of the game are not turtles. Bite and grab hold of that wicket and bite hard, so that they’ll have to shoot you before prying those jaws open industrial power tools – scoring not required. Hayden, Ponting, Dravid and Sangakkara wouldn’t be where they are today with that cute little mind-set, and no, we DON’T need to go as far as Jayasuriya and Kevin Petersen. The play not to lose, lose-lose mentality only leads to losses, often embarrassing ones. Tamim Iqbal Khan and Aftab Ahmed should not be penalized for their aggressive, positive ODI performances despite having comparatively good 4-day averages, and the versatile talents of Alok Kapali should not continue to get the selectors’ shaft despite back to back centuries in National cricket. The grapevine has it that Nafees Iqbal Khan is set to return to the international stage, and I say not a moment too soon.
Then we have the bowlers. Let’s look at Muhammad Sharif. It is true that Muhammad Sharif, taking Shahadat Hossein’s place in the second and final test match against India, has the stats from our domestic cricket to somewhat justify the call-up. The comparatively poor quality of our domestic cricket – when compared to those of our South Asian neighbors in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka – is also a fact. It was sad to see the young man trying his very best during the recent test match against India, and simply not making the grade. Then again, it's not the first time a questionable selection has possibly ended the international career of yet another young Bangladeshi bowler slash all-rounder. I don't think better bowlers like Dollar Mahmud, Tapash Baisya or even the tamer Talha Jubair would have, could have faired any worse than the 5' 6” seamer delivering invitations for Indian batsmen to play with at will, despite playing out of his skin under difficult conditions and circumstances. His gentle slow to medium pace, and sincerely attempted grit with the bat couldn’t do anything to mitigate either the realities of the weirdly misread, dead, and poorly constructed pitch – or his limitations as a cricketer. The quality opposition was as unforgiving to him as others have been to the likes of Mushfiq Babu from our not too distant past. Our veteran selectors have never taken responsibility for questionable selections while gleefully accepting questionable credit for the better ones. Hit or miss. Hit, they win. Miss, they don’t lose anything. There's no reason to expect that they will before their too long a reign as national selectors come to an end. Not unfamiliar to the morbid realities of public discontent, they still don’t get it. Perhaps the higher ups in BCB need to reassess their performance and take stronger measures in order to provide us with the best possible team for the upcoming Sri Lanka tour. We have come expect more from our cricketers, as we should, and BCB must stop assuming liabilities our cricket can ill afford at this juncture.
Maybe the Better Way to Select
Given the quality of our domestic cricket, only those performing in international matches for the BD U-19 (batsmen and spinners only, not fast bowlers – two words: stress fracture), U-23, and A sides against quality opposition from other test playing nations should be considered for the senior side. Those players must meet predetermined performance standards, including playing a specific number of matches, before given the opportunity to carve out a place for themselves under the limelight. Since it may be better for their confidence levels to face weaker opposition initially, they should debut against the likes of Zimbabwe, Kenya and even Ireland before dealing with the big boys of world cricket.
Predetermined, well-defined, and duly contextualized performance standards also need to be balanced and adjusted according to individual ability and realistic expectations in light of the realities of our domestic cricket. The bar for a Junaid Siddique or Dollar Mahmud needs to be set higher than say, a Nadif Chaudhury or Muhammad Shahzada. Talent and ability need to be specifically defined and measured with regards to: 1) natural hand-eye coordination and other bio mechanical attributes; 2) temperament and other psychological attributes; and most importantly, 3) the ability to learn in terms of specific, realistic, achievable and time-phased batting, bowling and fielding performance measures. Needless to say, exceptions to the rule can always be made for genuine talents like Mashrafee Bin Murtaza, Muhammad Ashraful Matin, Tamim Iqbal Khan, Mushfiqur Rahim, Shakib Al Hasan, Alok Kapali, and Nafis Iqbal Khan as they have been in the past. Having said that, those exceptions must be made with a degree of sobriety we haven't seen so far from our selectors. We don't want to witness talented young teens like Talha Jubair suffer major setbacks before having the chance to shine, anymore.
Players selected through the tougher, better, more reasonable new process should be given a predetermined number of chances to acclimate themselves at the senior level – say, up to 15 ODIs with 3 consecutive appearances and up to 5 test matches with 2 consecutive appearances – tied into a set of predetermined performance measures for each time they take to the field. We should be wise enough to remember that it's not all about the number of matches the individual players play for the senior side, or we have played over the past 7-odd years as a test playing nation for that matter. We must also take into consideration: 1) the quality of our evolving cricket infrastructure; 2) the typically counterproductive and stagnating challenges faced by that infrastructure; and most importantly, 3) the negative impact all of that is bound to have upon our nascent cricket culture. Before measuring the success and failure of its players, BCB must face up to its mission responsibilities, and objectively assess with absolute transparency whether or not it has done its very best to set them up for success.
A Professional League of Our Own
The long awaited development of a better cricket infrastructure, culminating in well-compensated, well-marketed, and well-merchandized professional teams, can only enhance the quality of our domestic cricket and strengthen the overall selection process. Following the Australian, South African, English and to a lesser extent, the Sri Lankan examples, coupled with the best practices from successful professional leagues from other sports around the world, such as the English Premier League in the United Kingdom and the Major League Baseball in the United States, the BCB can set up six such professional teams, one in each divisional capital and start the processes without further ado. The teams will play both versions of the game, on a variety of sporting wickets, in separate 4-day and limited over leagues throughout the year. Each one of the six teams will have: 1) a nationwide, extensive network of trained talent scouts; 2) state of the art training facilities managed by qualified Australian coaches and physios mentoring locals with the right aptitude; and most importantly, 3) several age-based junior sides such as U-15, U-17, U-19, U-23 and A sides. Such a league will add real value our existing cricket infrastructure, accelerate the meaningful growth of cricket and cricket culture in Bangladesh, and begin to meet our more realistic expectations without selling ourselves short as cricketers and cricket fans. The unrivaled popular passion for cricket will pretty much guarantee the easy availability of corporate sponsors to cover any financial shortfalls. A separate cable TV channel, dedicating itself to the sustainable development of cricket in Bangladesh should be set up by BCB and its strategic allies as an integral part of the league to broadcast all games, and cricket-education programs from all over the cricket world. Moreover, nobody should be surprised if such an investment starts to pay faster and better dividends for all involved with cricket in Bangladesh, least of all to most of the 150 million Bangladeshis for whom the sight of quality cricketers competing to qualify for our iconic national team, a team that has come to represent more than what it simply is, will add much needed spice to the otherwise work-laden lives without much else to do. In due time, the league could qualify for an IPO and be traded in the Dhaka and Chittagong stock exchanges as a publicly held company.
The Bangladesh National Cricket Team has come to symbolize what we, both as a nation and as individuals can do on the world stage under the critical gaze of older and wiser eyes, and brings us closer together as a people more than anything else in our history since the Liberation War of 1971. Team victories staring from the 1997 ICC Trophy championship, and individual accomplishments of Bangladeshi cricketers are deeply interwoven into our collective psyche. Ashraful’s match winning 100 against the mighty Aussies and 87 against the top ranked South Africans, his defiant 92 against England, the inaugural, maiden test hundred in Colombo at the tender age of 16 something, the memorable 158 not out and the more recent awe-inspiring, quick fire 62 against the star studded Indian test sides, have become integral to our national folklore. Mashrafee Bin Murtaza’s never say die attitude continues to snatch hope from the confines of utter despair every time the ball comes flying out of his grip – and with every ferocious swing of his increasingly safer bat. Shahriar Nafees Ahmed’s ton against the Australian test side, and the fearless athleticism coupled with a can do attitude of the Iqbal brothers, Aftab Ahmed, Alok Kapali and Shahadat Hossein tell us that it is indeed possible to become what we aspire to. Our beloved young Tigers reinforce and enhance our self esteem, and despite the often skimmed over challenges they face everyday, and the heavy burden of sky high public expectations, these young men deliver, and they continue to inspire us into feeling better about ourselves as Bangladeshis. Cricket has indeed become our only true national pastime, and it is no longer a game of the urban, affluent and English-medium elite. As the less affluent, small town and rural background of some of our best young cricketers clearly demonstrate, cricket belongs to everyone, and the larger, deeper pool of players are beginning to produce raw talent the likes of which we simply didn’t see in the past. The professional league must be based accordingly, and not be Dhaka-centric the way such things have a way of being, if we choose to do right by the tens of millions all over Bangladesh playing cricket. The tens of millions dreaming to become the next Mashrafee, Ashraful, Shakib and Mushfiq – hailing respectively from Narail, the dark and narrow streets of Bashabo in Dhaka, Magura and Bogura.
Looking Ahead to the Brave New World
The Dav Whatmore era has come to an anti-climactic end. Rumor has it that Richard McInnis is all set to take us to the next level. His track record and intimate knowledge of our players give me ample reason to be optimistic.
The writing has been on the wall for Habibul Bashar for some time now. Much has been written about Bashar’s Captaincy and compulsions, about his personality and attitude, and about his docile body language and the visibly lack of athleticism. I will not add more fuel to the fire anymore. As captain of a team that has given us some unforgettable moments, he deserves appreciation just for being at the right place at the right time, irrespective of his individual contributions, period. His recent performances as captain and player should make way for Muhammad Ashraful Matin and the new generation of more talented cricketers without delay. As the new skipper with the inspirational presence of Mashrafee Bin Murtaza as his deputy, he needs to stand and deliver that better tomorrow we have been privileged to glimpse on occasion, with greater frequency. His remarkable abilities as player and captain – be it for the Tigers, Dhaka Division or Sonargaon Cricketers – need to come full circle and open a new chapter in the annals of Bangladesh cricket.
A new chapter in the annals of Bangladesh cricket. What does that mean?
As a Bangladeshi and a layman, I just want to see a test win or two, well-fought draws, and losses where we go down fighting. I want to see back to back wins against the big boys of cricket in the short version of the game. I want to see our young Tigers learning from their mistakes and making visible improvements, however small they may be, over a shorter period of time. I want to see innovative thinking on the field balanced with traditional wisdom. I want to see the predatory instincts of a tiger creating opportunities, and the cohesive effort to seize positive results, and deliver that coup-de-grace when those opportunities present themselves. I want to revel at the electric joy of victory more often than I ever have, I want to feel the indescribable warmth that resonates deeply inside my Bangladeshi soul. I want expiation, and I want to hear monsoon winds rustling brittle autumn leaves in my sleep, and the soothing waves of the ever so loving whisper of a raspy voice that tells me: you too my child, you too belong in this world.
Sohel N Rahman, May 28, 2007, Dhaka.