“If you came here to compete only in this match, I am not coming back.”It had been more than half an hour since the presentations ended. It was the seventh of the 42 league matches in the 2015 World Cup. Bangladesh, an ICC Full Member for the last 14 years, had beaten World Cup debutants Afghanistan. For half an hour the Bangladesh players celebrated out on the Manuka Oval in Canberra. They went on a lap of honour to thank their fans, who had almost all come from outside the city. Even so, half an hour’s celebration by a Full Member of 14 years for beating low-ranked Afghanistan felt unusual to those outside Bangladesh. ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentary described it thus:
Bangladesh have gone on a victory lap of honour here. Thanking their fans. They haven’t won the World Cup yet, though. Just shows how rare success at international level is for them that a win against Afghanistan is celebrated thusly.
Chandika Hathurusingha, Bangladesh’s coach of eight months, was a little perplexed himself. He waited patiently, let his charges celebrate, and when they came back into the change room, asked everybody else to leave – administrators, support staff, “a lot of other people”. Then, without warning, he asked them the question that shook them: just what have you come to achieve here?
“The way you are celebrating, it seems you all have come to win just this match,” he told the team. “If that’s the case, it’s very sad.”
It is a question Bangladesh have been asked constantly. Just what have you come to achieve here? Not just in World Cups, not just on overseas tours, but in international cricket. Had they come to be happy with the odd upset or to make sure their wins were not labelled upsets? It is the question that has never left them.
“If life is a 100-storeyed building, cricket is just two of those. Cricket is nothing, man. Your biggest challenge is staying alive”MASHRAFE MORTAZA
When they beat Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup, they were celebrated. When they stunned India and South Africa in the 2007 World Cup, their cause was championed. In between, they beat Australia in Cardiff. Afterwards they dominated New Zealand in two ODI series at home. When you have only that to write home about in over 400 international matches, people do tend to tire of you. The world had found newer darlings: Kenya in 2003, Ireland in 2007. Afghanistan with their stories of human spirit were now the latest.
Bangladesh had gone through an insecure and frustrating 2014. It was the year the BCCI, the ECB and CA got together to take over world cricket. The smaller teams were worried about their future, most of all, Bangladesh. To date, Mushfiqur Rahimremains the only international captain to openly question the takeover. He feared Bangladesh would be the first team to be marginalised, sent to a second tier. His team feared this too. They became touchy and prickly.
Two-thousand-fourteen was supposed to be the year for the fruition of Bangladesh’s hard work; instead they lost quite a few close matches – by two runs, 13 runs, and twice by three wickets to Sri Lanka; by three wickets to Pakistan; by two wickets to Hong Kong; by three wickets to West Indies. It was a year different to any other. Bangladesh had had their share of heartbreaks earlier too – denied by Inzamam-ul-Haq in Multan, by Ricky Ponting in Fatullah – but they had never created so many chances against strong opposition so often. They scored 279 against India. Lost. Scored 326 against Pakistan. Lost. Had Sri Lanka at 67 for 8. Lost. Bowled India out for 105. Lost. Had India down at 119 for 9 in the next match. Rained out.
“If you don’t have that winning habit, you don’t know how to win,” says Tamim Iqbal, Bangladesh’s most prolific batsman in all formats. “That was a time when we didn’t know how to win.”
Chandika Hathurusingha knew Bangladesh had the potential to be better. He wanted the players to get over their fear of losing © AFP
Bangladesh also lost matches that were not close. It was a year in which they beat only Nepal, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. After losing one match to Afghanistan, they had to resort to a turning track against them in the World T20 opener. The team was haunted by memories of the winless streak of 75 international matches between October 1999 and March 2004 – 71 lost, two drawn, two no-results.
Now in such an uncertain climate, low on confidence, Bangladesh went to the world stage, in the most unforgiving of countries to play cricket in, Australia, where their two previous Tests had lasted seven days and where their highest ODI score was 147. Of all teams they were opening their campaign against Afghanistan. The war survivors who had already achieved a victory by making it here. They had nothing to lose. They had flamboyant fast bowlers with long hair, headbands and warpaint. TV loved them. Storytellers loved them. In the lead-up, things seemed so bad for Bangladesh that Harsha Bhogle and Ramiz Raja concluded on TV that it would be no upset if Afghanistan were to beat Bangladesh.
Tamim put the pressure down to expectation. “Playing against Zimbabwe, Afghanistan or any other Associate team we have to win,” he says. “That’s what everyone thinks. That’s what we think.” This, though, was not any other Associate match. This match was played in the fear that the world was ready to move on from Bangladesh.
Hathurusingha saw it. “Looking back now, I can say they were different,” he says. “At that time I didn’t see it that way. I thought, that’s how they prepare. That’s how they bring focus. Looking at it now, they were… ”
Bangladesh sleepwalked from one nightmare to the next. The board kept changing players, employing 39 of them in a 47-match streak in ODIs without a win
The thing about Hathurusingha is that he talks openly about what is now good with Bangladesh cricket but not too much about what was wrong . So when he tails off without saying how the preparations for Afghanistan were different, the phrase he perhaps doesn’t give out is “under siege”, or just “angry”.
And then Bangladesh were 119 for 4 in the 30th over. From there, Shakib Al Hasan – the best cricketer Bangladesh has produced – and Mushfiqur played the kind of assured innings you expect of world-class players in crisis. Tamim described what consistent losing does to the psyche of sportsmen. “You are chasing 250, you are 50 for 3, if you don’t know how to win, you will go and panic out there. When you are winning games regularly, even if you are 50 for 5, at least you know, ‘I have to calm down, build a partnership, and then we will go step by step.’ You can’t jump from the 20th over to the 50th. You have to go 21, 22, 23, 24, 25. That has been the change for Bangladesh.”
The victory should have been reassurance that they could win matches, but at the time it was just relief. It was as if all their energy had been spent in preparing for and winning that one game. Hathurusingha used the long celebration as an opportunity to challenge Bangladesh to discover how good they were, but what happened after that cannot truly be appreciated without taking a dive into what happened before.
On the sunny Monday of June 26, 2000, Aminul Islam, the captain of the Bangladesh side that beat Pakistan in 1999, got a call from Dhaka. It was someone from the Bangladesh Cricket Board. Aminul was living in Portsmouth in Hampshire that summer, playing in the Southern Premier League. He was asked to drive to Lord’s to be present for the press conference that would reveal Bangladesh as the newest ICC Full Member and Test team. The cable TV boom had already happened in south Asia, and one of the stations back home heard Aminul was going to be at the press conference. They arranged a camera and got him to report it for them.
Gordon Greenidge, who coached Bangladesh towards qualification for the 1999 World Cup, was unexpectedly fired in the middle of that tournament © Getty Images
Aminul lost his captaincy before the inaugural Test, in Dhaka against India in November that year, but he was part of the team. There had never been any first-class cricket in Bangladesh. Aminul prepared for the Test trying to perfect his leave during the English summer. He learnt the technique by reading Sunil Gavaskar’s Idols and Geoffrey Boycott’s manuals. His landlord, the journalist Andy Ford, used to tell him stories of how well Ian Botham played even after they took the captaincy away from him. Ford got Aminul a gym membership, and also arranged for him to net twice a week, a luxury in England. Aminul’s preparation was arguably the best in the team.
Bangladesh was a limited-overs country then. The only cricket in schools was 35-overs-a-side knockout matches. Clubs, and not regional sides, dominated the national scene, and they were happy playing one-day cricket. The few multi-day matches were in the latter stage of the inter-district national championship, when the divisional champions faced off in three-day games – and here too sometimes only the final would be played over three days. First-class cricket reached Bangladesh only after its team had been granted Test status. Sure enough, in their first Test they looked lost after three days. They gave a good account of themselves with 400 in the first innings, but by the time India levelled the scores on the fourth morning, Bangladesh were out of energy and focus.
“By day four, we had all forgotten there were another 180 overs to go,” Aminul says. “Our dressing room was a marketplace. Minister is coming, BCB president, guests are coming, Jimmy [Mohinder] Amarnath [one of Bangladesh’s former coaches] is coming, Gordon Greenidge [another former coach]. Lack of experience, not just among players, but everyone. The only experience we had was the three-day matches against England A, Hyderabad Blues etc. We had no idea what a five-day match was. We played Tests like three-day matches. First three days we were competitive. On fourth and fifth days we would lose out.”
The board operated from an office with one desk and a small kitchenette. The peon kept his bicycle and all his belongings in the kitchenette; it was his home
The 400 Bangladesh scored in their first Test innings was as false a dawn as the wins against Scotland and Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup. They were clearly out of their depth. Jagmohan Dalmiya, the shrewd businessman from Kolkata who became the chief of the Indian board and the ICC, had used the old political trick of increasing his voter base by introducing a supporter into the electoral college. Syed Ashraful Haque, the BCB secretary, managed Dalmiya’s campaign for the ICC presidency. The hard work done by the players paled in comparison with this politicking.
Akram Khan might have played the innings that Bangladesh cricket stands on, helping them qualify for the semi-final of the 1997 ICC Trophy, but it wasn’t him or Aminul or Greenidge, the coach, who was negotiating with Dalmiya. The officials who did assumed more importance, and ran the game whimsically, living, as Aminul puts it, in reflected glory. One day they would be arranging AstroTurf for the Dhaka Premier League (DPL) because the ICC Trophy in Malaysia two years on was to be played on AstroTurf; another night they would be firing the beloved coach Greenidge because, in the players’ words, he fought for them, for their match fees, their allowances. The same board that spent Taka 1 crore (approx US$127,800) to send the team to England for an acclimatisation tour a year before the 1999 World Cup refused to hire Dav Whatmore when he offered his services for $3000* a year in the early 1990s, according to Aminul. They didn’t know who Whatmore was; they didn’t bother to find out either.
It was the night before Bangladesh’s match against Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup that Greenidge was sacked. The man who wept with the players when they couldn’t control their joy at winning the 1997 ICC Trophy, by virtue of which they qualified for the World Cup. Those who made the decision to fire Greenidge didn’t even face him, choosing to send the bad news through a courier.
Bangladesh stun Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup, in Northampton (top); Aminul Islam (left) and Mohammad Rafique (far right) enjoy the heroes’ welcome given to the team in Dhaka after the tournament © Getty Images, Associated Press
Greenidge still went to the ground to watch his team play. During the lunch break he went to Aminul and told him that quite a few players were planning to quit on a whim, but that he shouldn’t, that Bangladesh cricket still needed him. Greenidge didn’t eat, Aminul remembers. Aminul followed Greenidge’s advice but it did him little good. He scored a century in Bangladesh’s debut Test, failed in an ODI between that Test and the next, and was dropped. With experienced players dropped for green youth, a whole generation of players caught between the two age groups disappeared without a fair trial.
“Even if we were given Test status now, in 2016 we would have had the same problems,” Aminul says. “The advantage when we got the Test status was that Bangladesh was a highly popular team. The government was very much interested. Cricket was very popular. A small, concentrated country in which everyone followed cricket. Standard of the game up to the ODIs was okay, but not five-day cricket. Bangladesh lacked there. They could have set five or six regional centres to develop cricketers. That was the only thing lacking. Kenya played the World Cup semis in 2003, but they are nowhere now. That is Bangladesh’s strength. That cricket is loved here.”
On the field Bangladesh sleepwalked from one nightmare to the next. The board kept changing players, employing 39 of them in a 47-match streak in ODIs without a win. The beds kept changing, the nightmare remained the same. A team prematurely elevated for the wrong reasons, run by the wrong people, was achieving the wrong results. But not everything was wrong.
Minhajul Abedin played in Bangladesh’s inaugural ODI, played a vital role in winning his last, over Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup, and is now the chief selector of the national team. He came to Dhaka from Chittagong around 1983, started his league career here with a second-division team, Lalmatia, and then moved to one of the biggest clubs in the DPL, Mohammedan. The DPL is the biggest tournament in Bangladesh, a 50-overs affair bringing cricketers from all over the country to Dhaka for two plum months every year any time between October and May.
“They didn’t know how good they were. They just drove with the handbrakes on. Not given freedom. Not given confidence”CHANDIKA HATHURUSINGHA
Abedin doesn’t remember a single match he played against Abahani that was not a full house. When Wasim Akram played in the league, 15,000 would turn up to watch him train. In a 1986 final, flamboyant batsman and former captain Habibul Bashar remembers, stones were thrown at a senior player who dropped three catches. As a captain, Abedin never liked winning tosses, because should his side lose the match he couldn’t step out in Dhaka without being questioned about his decision.
Bengalis as a people have always been more generous spectators than other south Asians. They need not be participants. No Indian or Bangladeshi team is going to get close to a football World Cup in the foreseeable future, but flags are out in Kolkata and Dhaka when Brazil play Argentina. When East Bengal and Mohun Bagan play in Kolkata, or when Abahani take on Mohammedan in Dhaka, the Bengalis come to a standstill. Walk around Dhaka on an evening and you will see hundreds of faces straining against fences, watching club football sides train. Even in 2016, 400 to 500 people gather to watch a match of handball at the Bangabandhu Stadium. Hockey, boxing, even kabaddi draw crowds.
Cricket enjoyed a distinct advantage. As a part of Pakistan, Dhaka had hosted Test cricket before; people had seen legends of the game in flesh and blood. Once their country started participating in the ICC Trophy in 1979, they realised it was not a fantasy to be playing international sport. To actually have their own heroes as opposed to debating over Pele and Maradona. Cricket was a rich man’s sport, but it was also within the reach of a country in need of a salve.
A Test match in Dhaka (then Dacca) between Pakistan and Australia in 1959. Before Bangladesh was created in 1971, the region was known as East Pakistan © Associated Press
Pakistan, more than any of its neighbours, is the home of subversive art. It usually comes out through humour and music. A mock qawwali in response to the infamous power outages is the rage these days. “Pat Lo Pat Lo Khambay Pat Lo” tells the authorities to uproot the electricity poles if there is not going to be any power in homes. The song doesn’t limit itself to just power shortages, though. It goes on to tell the siyasatdan, the rulers: you have won elections through fake education degrees, we can look past that; you released Raymond Davis (the CIA agent accused of murders in Pakistan) for a bribe, we can ignore that; petrol and CNG prices are soaring, it’s okay; but now that even the Bangladesh education system is better than ours, please uproot the bricks of the school buildings.
This disparaging attitude was what Bangladesh, and before it, East Pakistan, lived with. Their subjugation was absolute, and sport was no exception. According to Osman Samiuddin’s The Unquiet Ones, AH Kardar, the father of Pakistani cricket and also a government servant, was sent with a brief to remove all traces of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore from the education curriculum of East Pakistan. In the 24 years it spent as part of Pakistan, though they formed the numerical majority, not one man from the east made the national team. Many Bangladeshis hold Kardar responsible.
For a country born out of a bloody war, accompanied by the devastating cyclone Bhola, cricket represented hope. For every former colony in cricket, the sport has been an expression of freedom, a means of looking their former white masters in the eye in at least one endeavour, and it was even more so for Bangladesh. They had been exploited twice over, and while football was a distraction, they were not going to make a name in it anytime soon. India had hockey and Bollywood, Pakistan had music, hockey and squash, but Bangladesh, they were still looking for an identity. When they saw that cricket was the sport they could forge an international identity with, people found a way to spend their energies, and more importantly their monies, on it.
“After losing 40 matches in a row, the 41st match was a full house. You won’t see in any country that people are crying when their team loses”TAMIM IQBAL
Abedin’s first club contract in Dhaka was worth Tk 25,000 ($320), at a time when the game was not making any money. Somehow the clubs and players kept the game alive. The Bangladesh Cricket Control Board (now BCB, with “Control” dropped from the name), established in 1972, operated from an office with one desk and a small kitchenette. It had a cyclostyle machine and a stove. The peon kept his bicycle and all his belongings in the kitchenette; it was his home. The officials used the stove for tea, the peon to cook his food. Often club officials visiting the office would send the peon to the adjoining Bangladesh Football Federation to check if anyone was around. If they were, these club officials would drop in to say hello, knowing they would be served tea and treats there. The cricket board couldn’t afford them.
Ahmed Sajjadul Alam Bobby, a BCB director now, was an Abahani official. He had to give up playing because of rheumatic fever and the war, but he stayed involved with cricket through Abahani. Bobby remembers how, around 1976-77, the national team used to practise without any refreshments. He would go to the Red Cross office and bring high-protein biscuits sent as relief. “Given all that, I am happy we had a game of cricket, forget the ICC status and Test performances,” he says.
Cricket cannot run on relief biscuits. It is a sport that needs money for grounds, equipment, umpires and so on. The money came from the clubs, and the clubs relied on subscriptions from members. “Club officials and members loved sport,” Abedin says. “There was no other recreation. People who earned money got involved with clubs. To make a name perhaps. And the biggest pastime was sports.”
Whatever their motive, the clubs and their officials kept the game running with their money and enthusiasm. There was just one tournament worth talking of, the DPL, but it was big. The competition was intense. The cricketers, who made their living out of it, played under immense pressure. Thousands watched each game. Well before the IPL, teams in the DPL employed overseas stars. People would wait for the next big signing. The recruitment of overseas stars became a matter of competition. In the process, local cricketers learnt from the likes of Akram, Arjuna Ranatunga and Neil Fairbrother. When they played with Pakistan’s big hitter, Nadeem Younis, they realised how it felt to bat without pressure. Aamer Malik taught them how to play spin. Aminul learnt how to get off strike from Ranatunga.
Cricket represented hope for a country born out of a bloody liberation war, in the wake of the devastation caused by Cyclone Bhola in 1970 © Associated Press
Even today the league is perhaps the most singular tournament in the world. It is now a List A event with no TV coverage and with nobody outside the cricket circle watching, but the best players make Tk 35 lakh (approx $44,700) for the season. Paying India’s Yusuf Pathan $5000 for a match hardly raises an eyebrow. In 2009-10, when Abahani captain Shakib Al Hasan presided over a last-ball defeat to Mohammedan, he was hounded by fans who found their way to the dressing room.
That kind of reaction is not ideal, but the DPL shows that Bangladesh always had, and still has, two essential ingredients for a cricket country: love of the sport, and the money to keep its performers from wandering off elsewhere. Tamim remembers how his team was not abandoned by fans during its worst streak. “After losing 40 matches in a row, the 41st match was a full house,” he says. “We still got that support. Doesn’t matter what they said after the match, but they kept coming to the ground. It’s fine. There will be criticism when we don’t win. You won’t see in any country that people are crying when their team loses. Except in Bangladesh.”
Aminul is now an ICC development officer and travels to cricketing outposts. He explains what worked for Bangladesh. “Bangladesh is a country from where, in the next five or ten years, the most exciting cricketers will come. We have the numbers here. When I go to China or Singapore or Hong Kong, I ask who wants to play cricket, and I get only five out of 100. You do that in Bangladesh, 99 out of 100 will come for cricket training. One will not come because he is lazy, but he will also play cricket games on the computer. Everyone is following this game. The interest is there. Player interest is there. Government interest is there.”
Perhaps Dalmiya and the ICC realised that when they granted Bangladesh full membership. The love for cricket finally beat that for football in 1997, when Bangladesh won the ICC Trophy. In Kuala Lumpur they desperately needed a rain-affected match to resume so that they could win and stay alive in the tournament. Bangladeshi expats and journalists helped mop the turf. The final of that tournament was live on radio, and shown on TV the next day. The whole nation wept along with Akram Khan and Greenidge and the team. They were now going to play a World Cup.
Bobby, who went with the team to England, saw first-hand what it had done for the confidence of the Bangladeshi people. “What did the world know about this country before cricket? A ferry sinking, 250 people washed away. Cyclones. Flood. Political strife. Coups. In the process, two presidents killed. That is how people around the world knew Bangladesh.
In the 24 years it spent as part of Pakistan, though they formed the numerical majority, not one man from the east made the national team
“But with progress of cricket – we are still a third-world country – we are up there with the top ten. That is staggering. Cricket has given this country a new identity. I have friends in UK, Australia etc. Their kids go to school, and they were referred to as Pakistanis or Indians. And they didn’t bother to explain who they were or where they came from. But after the 1999 World Cup, when we beat Scotland and made a mark on the world stage, those very kids went to school wearing the Bangladesh shirt. Found their roots. Found identity. Overnight. Not quantifiable.”
Imagine what it would have meant to the nation when a week later the team beat Pakistan. Lost to Bangladesh? Pat Lo Pat Lo Wicktan Pat Lo. May as well uproot the stumps now.
As with many things Bangladesh cricket, though, this was to be a false dawn.
“Iwanted to achieve more. I was underachieving. We were getting tired of losing. We were getting tired of not getting respect from international cricket. We had been playing for seven-eight years. After seven-eight years, we were not getting the respect others with the same experience were. We as a group of senior cricketers kept talking to each other about this. And we said, ‘Okay, we have to do something.’ When your seniors are doing the hard work, the juniors will follow.”
It is an oppressively humid June afternoon during the fasting month of Ramadan in Dhaka when we meet Tamim at the National Cricket Academy nets in the Shere Bangla National Stadium. Tamim has just finished a gruelling fitness session with Bangladesh trainer Mario Villavarayan, the 42-year-old Sri Lankan who bowled pace for 378 wickets in 116 first-class matches. Tamim is drenched in sweat as he reflects on the progress of Bangladesh cricket. He has seen the lows and the less frequent highs. We are after a particular event or an incident or a match where his side might have turned the corner. From being a side that didn’t know how to win, to a side that in one year beat England in Australia, made it to the World Cup quarter-final, beat Pakistan, India and South Africa in home series without the word “upset” being used to describe any of those results.
Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina celebrates the team’s ICC Trophy victory in 1997 with the captain, Akram Khan © Associated Press
We pose the same question to Hathurusingha, to the captain of the limited-overs teams Mashrafe Mortaza, and to many an official. What emerges is not the story of one match that made them believe, but of the belief that led them to win matches. It was a slow, painstaking process, slower than it should have been. There cannot be excuses for the slow pace but there are reasons.
In 1986, Bangladesh played their first international match. When they played their seventh, four years later, in the Austral-Asia Cup, Australian offspinner Peter Taylor, who had never seen Bangladesh’s best batsman Akram Khan bat, bowled him one ball and immediately called for an extra fielder on the leg side. The Bangladesh players wondered what was happening. They soon realised Taylor had seen Akram’s bottom-hand grip, and knew he favoured the leg side. Akram scored 13 off 44 that day as Bangladesh crawled to 134 for 8 in their 50 overs.
The jump, everybody knew, was going to be huge if Bangladesh were going to play international cricket regularly. They would have nowhere to hide. The administrators who basked in “reflected glory” didn’t have any answers. While the DPL taught players how to play under pressure, it was detrimental to their overall growth. Results mattered most, and spin achieved results. Fast bowlers hardly existed: the ones who made it to the league would not get any matches; many of them would eventually become spinners. Fingerspin became the preferred weapon because the pitches didn’t demand that bowlers work hard to turn the ball. In a country that played only limited-overs cricket seriously, fingerspin provided more control. Mohammad Rafique’s success in the early 2000s turned Bangladesh into a country of left-arm spinners. As the trajectories got flatter to contain batsmen, though, elbows began straightening to turn the ball. BCB officials doubled as club officials, as they still do, so there was nobody to keep a check on the actions.
Everybody was busy trying to win, nobody minded that Bangladesh was now a team of bowlers with dodgy actions and batsmen with dodgy techniques, plus Mohammad Ashraful, who dazzled once in a while before proceeding to frustrate followers again. Opposition teams would declare only 200 runs in credit and finish innings wins to save days. As player burnout became an issue, matches against Bangladesh were when the big names rested. Bangladesh were at the party all right but nobody wanted to talk to or dance with them.
While the DPL taught players how to play under pressure, it was detrimental to their overall growth. Results mattered most, and spin achieved results
It drove the coach, Whatmore – now the BCB knew who he was – to such frustration that he once said: “The lack of basic knowledge is a bit staggering really. When these young cricketers were growing up in youth cricket, they weren’t told about the basics of cricket.”
A new breed of players emerged, though. It was a natural progression: Tamim, Shakib, Mashrafe, Mushfiqur were more worldly-wise, more aware of the surroundings, more confident. Mashrafe’s success showed you could bowl quick too, which would come handy later. Zimbabwe fell, and that gave Bangladesh an opponent they could beat regularly, helping them grow in confidence. Under Whatmore, Bangladesh turned a corner in the 2007 World Cup, beating India and South Africa.
Just when it looked like Bangladesh were on to something, another neighbour hit them. Unhappy with losing out on television rights, India’s Zee started a breakaway T20 league. Though in India mainly retired or fringe players defected, the Indian Cricket League (ICL) managed to sign up big names from Bangladesh: Aftab Ahmed, the precocious batsman whose departure for the ICL Tamim considers the biggest blow. Alok Kapali, who scored a superb hundred against India in the 2008 Asia Cup. Shahriar Nafees, who had a Test century against Australia. Six players who signed up were part of Bangladesh’s first-choice squad of 16.
“As a group we had played a lot of matches,” Tamim says of that 2007-2008 team. “Everybody was getting experienced. Everybody was getting a taste of winning, and then suddenly we had to form a new team, and give them another two, three, four years.”
As the team started from scratch under another Australian, Jamie Siddons, Shakib emerged as a truly world-class player. He rose to the top of the ICC allrounders’ rankings in all three formats. He was a Bangladeshi cricketer unlike any who had preceded him. His left-arm spin was clean and had all the subtleties of a specialist. He could have played as a middle-order batsman alone. The problem still was that the team relied on the individual brilliance of Tamim, Shakib, Mashrafe or Mushfiqur. If they were set 270 and upwards and lost Tamim early, the rest batted as if to just last the 50 overs.
Jamie Siddons taught his players the importance of building a base before scoring big runs © AFP
Others saw it. Once, while chasing 336 against New Zealand in December 2007, Bangladesh scored 181 for 6 before rain ended the game at 43 overs. The opposition captain Daniel Vettori remarked in typically understated New Zealand fashion: “There was probably a little bit of frustration about the style of play. We thought Bangladesh would chase a little bit harder – whenever you are chasing 330, you have to take a few risks. If you don’t, you stall, and that’s what happened.”
It happened all too often, making you wonder how Bangladesh were going to win if they were going to give up so easily. Siddons’ defence was that he wanted his batsmen to get confidence from fifties and hundreds before they started going for outlandish targets. By the time they got that confidence, though, the world had moved on. Par scores were being pushed up every day and one century was no longer enough.
Siddons’ ways did seem to work, though, as the players acknowledge. He brought consistency to the side, he taught them how to build a base before taking off. “I think Bangladesh cricket started to change when Jamie Siddons became the coach,” Tamim says. “A lot of our cricketers believe that. The hard work he showed us, the amount of time, how to change your batting, how to think big shots, how to score big runs, and the amount of training we did under him… You know when you do all the hard work, you get rewards after some time. You don’t get rewards immediately. In Jamie’s time we did all the hard work, and somebody else got the reward.”
Two years after Siddons left in 2011, unable to cope with the politicking, Bangladesh beat New Zealand 3-0 in an ODI series. The boys from the class of 2007 were now peaking. Exciting talent like Mahmudullah and Nasir Hossain were joining them. Fast bowlers had begun to appear despite the system. The next year was going to be big. They were going to host the World T20. They were going to host the Asia Cup. They would have a chance to surprise Sri Lanka and India in bilateral series.
“Even if we were given Test status now, in 2016, we would have had the same problems”AMINUL ISLAM
Then they hit the wall in 2014. No matter how hard they tried they fell at the last hurdle. They had tired of losing, they had worked hard, they had gained experience, but it didn’t seem enough. It was like reaching a really advanced level in a video game again and again and then losing all your lives there. Like in video games, to reach the next level they needed to unlock an achievement somewhere, get that extra “power” to slay the villains. They just didn’t know how to unlock it.
Hathurusingha knew. Before he took over as the coach, Hathurusingha, a former Sri Lanka batsman, New South Wales coach and an assistant coach at Sydney Thunder, watched one series as an observer. He didn’t want to walk into the role blind. He then travelled to the West Indies in charge. Bangladesh didn’t win anything on that tour, but Hathurusingha saw a talented side that wasn’t playing at its best. He knew the first year of his job was going to be easy; there was a lot of scope for simple improvement because “I could see certain things were not happening”. Aminul remembers meeting Hathurusingha in South Korea after that West Indies tour. Hathurusingha told him Mahmudullah had everything, Tamim had everything, they just needed a little direction.
“I saw an opportunity,” Hathurusingha says of his first sighting of the team. “I saw scope for improvement. That’s all I saw. I saw the players were talented. They had their moments on the field. I saw they were coming into their prime. I knew they had a certain amount of experience. I saw the facilities here. I was [in Bangladesh] with the Canada team in the 2011 World Cup. I knew I could make use of them.”
In his first match in charge at home, though, Hathurusingha came face-to-face with the real challenge of coaching Bangladesh: their fear of losing. It was a Test against Zimbabwe, in which they did all the hard work but then lost seven wickets chasing 101 in the fourth innings. “I didn’t see this coming,” Hathurusingha says. “That was an eye-opener for me. I wondered how I was going take this fear out of the guys’ system. Then I realised this is an opportunity. They didn’t know how good they were. They just drove with the handbrakes on. Because of unnecessary reasons. Like someone was brought up by being hit him all the time. When you see someone, you get scared. Not given freedom. Not given confidence.”
Hathurusingha, too, saw what Vettori and the world saw. He didn’t put it down to selfishness, though. “[We needed a] team-first culture,” he says. “The purpose of playing for Bangladesh. Those are the few things we asked. The biggest change was, one of the biggest changes I tried to bring, the respect the players deserve, from the public, from the selectors, from the board, everything. We tried to restore that. They need to feel they are important. No matter what happens. It is not only performance. It is how they conduct themselves. How they go about doing things. How they train. How they conduct themselves off the field. How they confront the opposition.
“They relied on a few players. If those players failed it was the end of the world. They didn’t believe as a team. They hadn’t been given a direction that everyone had a part to play. What your part is. It’s not that Mushfiqur should always score or Shakib should always score and take wickets.”
The A team: Tamim Iqbal (left) and Shakib Al Hasan have emerged as two of Bangladesh’s more influential players in the last decade © AFP
If Hathurusingha was strong tactically and technically, he was lucky in getting a mature Mashrafe back as limited-overs captain. Mashrafe, nicknamed “Pagla” [madman] for his reckless ways when he was younger, has seen a lot in his life. In 2007 he lost his friend and team-mate Manzarul Islam in a motorbike accident. By 2011, having bravely fought many injuries, he was dropped for a home World Cup on fitness grounds. His wife nearly died giving birth to their first child, a premature arrival. She spent 30 days in intensive care. At that time he thought life as he knew it was over, but he came back to cricket because “that’s all I knew”.
Some four years later, Mashrafe was back for his third stint as captain, this time making it clear that he was going to do things his way. Having seen the trials of life outside cricket, Mashrafe brought with him the knowledge that this was just a sport. “If life is a 100-storeyed building, cricket is just two of those,” he says now. “If everyone in the team thinks like that, it helps. People spend so much emotion doing their professional work. Cricket is everything to some players, but still they have their parents, wife, kids. Cricket is nothing, man. Your biggest challenge is staying alive. We are very lucky that we are playing, that’s it.”
Mashrafe freed the minds of the players. He was the messenger Hathurusingha needed. Players respected him, adored him. Mashrafe insisted on addas [spontaneous chat sessions, often over cups of tea]. The team would talk about everything under the sun. During these sessions Mashrafe instilled belief in his men. “When Mash became captain, that was one of the most positive things to happen to Bangladesh cricket,” Tamim says. “There were things we didn’t believe we could do but he believed. He thought we are going to beat them. In Australia, I won’t be lying to you, we didn’t believe. He believed. He was the one who kept telling us the same thing, same thing. Slowly slowly we started to believe in ourselves as well. ‘F***, if he is saying that we can, that means we can.’ Slowly slowly he changed everything. I give equal credit to Chandi, Mario and Mashrafe.”
First-class cricket reached Bangladesh only after its team had been granted Test status. Sure enough, in their first Test they looked lost after three days
Hathurusingha also arranged sessions with Phil Jones, Michael Hussey’s mental conditioning coach, who works with CA and Sydney Thunder. Believing was just one part, a prerequisite for unlocking achievement. The actual unlocking was done through Villavarayan, the trainer. Bangladesh needed to realise if they were to be champions, they had to live like champions. That cricket was not just bat and ball. That in tight games if you are fit and strong enough, you can delay the risky shot, the shot that often gets you out at a crucial juncture. That the bad ball bowlers bowl in the later spells to lose a match can be avoided if you are fitter and stronger. This was a team sick of losing. They were ripe for conversion and they bought into the ways of Hathurusingha and Villavarayan. “The boys changed their lifestyle, their way of thinking,” says Mashrafe.
“Best in the world, in all sports, Cristiano Ronaldo, Djokovic, Virat Kohli, they are all super super fit,” Tamim says. “Trust me, two years back you wouldn’t have seen me running like this during a Premier League match. Mario has given me that belief that if I become fitter I will achieve things I have not achieved before. That’s what happened in 2015. I hadn’t scored a 200, I scored a 200. I hadn’t scored a T20 hundred, I scored a T20 hundred. All those kinds of things.”
In June, Bangladesh are four months away from international cricket, but Hathurusingha is not in Australia or Sri Lanka. He is in Dhaka, overseeing the fitness of the players. He spends hours sitting on a bench in the gym, talking one on one with them. Tamim comes one day, Mushfiqur another. Shakib makes visits. So does Mustafizur Rahman, the sensational cutter bowler who is a big but unplanned factor in Bangladesh’s rise. In order to avoid the infamous Dhaka traffic, all the cricketers have found houses near the Shere Bangla Stadium in Mirpur, a notorious locality. The only reckless thing Mashrafe does nowadays is get injured while taking a cycle-rickshaw ride to the stadium. Whenever he is free, he rounds up his friends, who are shopkeepers in the neighbourhood, and makes his way to the stadium. When he comes to meet us, he is with a motley crew. In progress is a DPL game involving his former team Mohammedan, who didn’t pick him in the draft. Even as he talks to us, every time a Mohammedan wicket falls, he celebrates. The same man gets rid of all emotion – or tries to – when he himself plays.
Diets have changed, the way they think and live has changed, and the way they train has changed too. “Earlier, players used to bat for two hours in the nets,” Tamim says, “but when Chandi came he said batting two hours in the nets won’t make you a better batsman if you don’t have a purpose. Rather than that, bat for 15 minutes but with purpose. Every training session is an opportunity to achieve something. If you come here and walk around, it is a waste of time. It’s better you don’t train. But if you are in training, there is a goal to achieve, you should have a purpose.”
Fierce like us: Bangladesh’s cricket fans stood by their team through the worst of times, and when it’s time to celebrate, they don’t hold back © Getty Images
Before the World Cup in Australia, all training was designed to prepare for the challenge ahead. Granite slabs came out, to replicate the bounce. Match situations were simulated. During one of these sessions, Hathurusingha saw the team turn a corner. Two batsmen – he doesn’t want their names published – batted a certain way in a certain situation and achieved the target. During the next simulation, they batted completely differently. “You have the talent, what difference does the situation make to you?” Hathurusingha asked them. “Why can’t you approach it with the same confidence?” He could see it resonated.
Hathurusingha had a powerful top order, he had spinners, he had an allrounder and a wicketkeeper-batsman, another batsman who was finishing games, youngsters like Sabbir Rahman with the outrageous confidence they had gained in the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL). But the team needed fast bowlers. That was alien territory for Bangladesh, who in the past had contributions from the quicks only in spurts. Hathurusingha insisted on picking them – Rubel Hossainaveraged 85 in Tests but was recalled – and giving them favourable conditions.
“Fast bowlers were there in the system but they were never given the opportunity,” Hathurusingha says. “Someone wrote, Rubel’s average is this and he is in the team. Lot of opinion flew. They didn’t go in deep enough to understand he was not given a pitch to bowl. If the wicket starts off like a fourth-day wicket, how can you take wickets? Never got an opportunity to bowl on a proper wicket, but I knew the ability he had to bowl on a Brisbane pitch. All along I knew this is what I wanted in Australia.”
Once the win over Afghanistan lifted the pressure off Bangladesh, all the team needed was some refocusing, which Hathurusingha provided with the stern chat after those celebrations. When they went out to chase 319 against Scotland, something happened that changed the team. Nobody doubted they were going to win the match. It was an efficient chase, with about as much drama as there is in a bank clerk’s day. There was one score in the 90s, two in the 60s, one in the 50s and another in the 40s. The strike rates ranged between 95 and 143, but nobody took undue risks. They now knew what the big teams felt like, that they always had a chance no matter the situation.
When Bangladesh went out to chase 319 against Scotland, nobody doubted they were going to win. It was an efficient chase, with about as much drama as in a bank clerk’s day
Watching Rubel, Taskin Ahmed and Mashrafe beat England was a sight for sore Bangladeshi eyes, accustomed to watching the team win sparingly and through spin. Apart from Australia, Bangladesh were the only team that gave New Zealand a fight in the league stage. For about 30 overs in the quarter-final, against India, Bangladesh displayed excellent plans and defensive bowling, but failed to pull the trigger when the opponents were tired. They happened to be on the wrong side of an umpiring call and couldn’t recover.
Having achieved a satisfactory result at the World Cup, Bangladesh needed to maintain some consistency to show that they had truly come of age. Hathurusingha insisted on retaining the seaming tracks at home, and he had to fight to get his way. His logic was simple: they now had the bowlers to exploit those conditions, and their batsmen had shown they could hold their own against pace. He and Mashrafe insisted on fast-tracking Mustafizur into the international side. They now had a four-pronged pace attack, all with different styles, winning them matches in Dhaka.
It was not just the winning, it was about the way they won. Usually smaller teams sneak wins in extraordinary matches – a collapse from the bigger team, extreme conditions, rain curtailments – but these were regular matches. Against Pakistan they defended 300 and chased around 250 twice, within 40 overs. When India reached 95 for 0 chasing 308, Bangladesh didn’t panic; they knew they had more in their arsenal. This is the game to which Tamim points to demonstrate the change in belief.
Challenges still remain, though. Tamim, Mashrafe and Hathurusingha don’t need prompting to accept Bangladesh are nowhere near where they should be in Tests. While talent is emerging from the outposts, Bangladeshi cricket remains centred in Dhaka. There is no major competition outside the DPL and the BPL, the franchise-based T20 tournament. The first-class tournament is not half as important. While watching a DPL match on a low and slow surface, Aminul paints a desperate picture: “Out of these 22 players most of them have played only this cricket over the last seven-eight years. So they are used to only this cricket.”
Intense competition, and a passionate fan following, has kept the DPL alive for decades. Abahani Limited celebrate their final-over victory over Brothers Union in April 2016 © BCB
Getting the national team to play has become an ordeal for the BCB, which voted with the Big Three for short-term gains. Now that there is no need to respect the Future Tours Programme, and now that qualification to big events is based on rankings, teams hardly want to risk losing ranking points by playing Bangladesh. The BCCI’s original schedule for their 2016-17 home season consisted of a first-ever Test for Bangladesh on Indian soil and a triangular series involving New Zealand, but New Zealand refused to play. There cannot be too much sympathy for the BCB, which is reluctant to organise series against Zimbabwe, Afghanistan or Ireland – because it is itself worried about Bangladesh losing ranking points.
England’s visit in October was slated to be the first bit of international cricket for Bangladesh after the World T20 in March. Some uncertainty arrived when terrorists attacked a Dhaka café on July 1, which left 20 hostages dead. It seemed quite possible that England would become the second team to pull out of a Bangladesh tour following Australia (who postponed their two-Test series last year over security concerns), but after a visit of a security team, England eased Bangladesh’s nerves by committing to the tour barring any future incident. Also, Bangladesh agreed to host Afghanistan for an ODI series before England’s arrival.
Bangladesh is still a team that can shock observers. The 2016 World T20 saw a less than ideal lead-up for them – not their format, little time spent together as a T20 team, a gruelling qualifying schedule thanks to the success in the Asia Cup that delayed their travel to India – but they came back okay from the hardships. They lost two bowlers to suspect actions – cue indignation that they were called in a world event and not before, but their home umpires should have really stepped in earlier – yet turned in an accomplished performance for 39.3 overs against hot favourites India. Mushfiqur even celebrated a win at that point. They haven’t yet discussed as a team what happened next. Two runs required off three balls with four wickets in hand and two of their best finishers, Mahmudullah and Mushfiqur, at the wicket – “If the situation arrives again, those are the two batsmen I want,” says Hathurusingha – but they still managed to lose.
If Bangladesh’s previous successes were cut short by disastrous months that followed in their wake, these three balls have the potential to do the same amount of damage. Especially when the players have seven months to sit at home and think about it. Tamim speaks of lessons to learn. How MS Dhoni slowed the game down. How they should have just taken the single and resisted playing the money shot. “If we take that game in a positive way, and if we take that game as an example, it will do wonders for us,” he says.
“I thought we had passed that stage,” Hathurusingha says. “It was the emotion of an emotional people that got over them in those final moments. I have spoken to only one person about that game so far,” he says with an air of mystery. “That’s all. Not a word spoken apart from one guy. I am going to give you a secret here. We are not going to put that game behind.”
Bangladesh as a cricket country is going through a delicate time. The players and the team have all but outgrown the angst-filled adolescent years that others around them are still stuck in. The team has been entrusted with the great and unenviable responsibility of controlling the nation’s mood, of indulging in one of the very few activities to bring collective cheer. More so at a time when violent extremism has made disturbing inroads. It’s incumbent on this team and these administrators that they do justice to the passion and the raw talent for cricket. For the moment, though, if Bangladesh were to play the best ODI team in the world in any conditions, they will believe they can win, and the fans won’t be surprised if they do. After giving its countrymen an identity, Bangladesh cricket has finally found itself one.
*1400 GMT, September 2, 2016: Whatmore’s offer was erroneously mentioned as $300
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo’s Bangladesh correspondent @isam84
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