November 16, 2004
Article published in Cricinfo >>
As soon as the one-day series against New Zealand had finished, Bangladesh's captain Habibul Bashar headed off straight to his sleepy hometown of Kushtia. He had made just two appearances in the one-dayers having missed the Tests due to a thumb injury. Now he had a limp and carried a crutch, courtesy of a James Franklin yorker on the big toe of his left foot in the second match, which put him out of the third.
Bashar is probably the one Bangladesh player who is spared a daily dissection in the sports media, which has become worryingly cricket-oriented since the Tigers made it to the 1999 World Cup. He is also the bloke the fans prefer to forgive for the occasional failure, knowing that he is a good bet to come up trumps in the next innings. But even the country's most successful batsman was relishing the opportunity to spend the Eid holidays in some peace and quiet.
"The pressure is too much in Dhaka. Everyone it seems has attained the right to criticise us," said Bashar. "Getting away from the capital is a nice thought." His sentiment was being shared by other members of his team, who have been at the receiving end both on and off the field ever since an encouraging first trip of the Caribbean finished in June.
For the record, Bangladesh played just two Tests between June and November and lost both by an innings. But that was just a continuation of their dreadful one-day form. In the last nine one-dayers, Bangladesh crossed 200 just once and that was only against the amateurs of Hong Kong in the Asia Cup. Twice, they have folded for less than 100. Suddenly, those who had seen some light after the fighting show in the West Indies were ready to press the panic button.
You don't have to be an Einstein to put your finger on the reasons for Bangladesh's repeated failures. It's their dismal batting that just won't click. These days even their coach, Dav Whatmore, is unable to explain the repeated top-order collapses that are the only sure thing you can expect when Bangladesh are batting.
The frustrations are apparent even among the groundstaff at the Bangabandhu National Stadium. "What's the use of preparing a wicket according to the wish of the team management?" asked one of the team, after Bangladesh had been shot out for 177 on the first day of the opening Test against New Zealand. "When it's a perfect batting track, they get bundled out before tea. And there are never enough runs for the bowlers to attack. Home-advantage is a grossly misplaced expression in our country."
The two Test matches ended inside four days. The bowling and fielding were superb in the one-dayers, but again Bangladesh never posed a challenge with the bat. Naturally, fingers have been pointed at the standard of domestic cricket by international observers, commentators and even touring teams. But herein lies the enigma.
Unlike the players of every other Test-playing nation, the majority of Bangladesh's top cricketers are not products of the domestic first-class competition. Instead, they have either earned their place in the side by performing well in the limited-overs Dhaka Premier League, traditionally the most popular and lucrative event, or have been picked up straight from the Under-19s and exposed to the big time. The concept of an A or a B team to ease these youngsters into the top level is virtually non-existent, and that's why so many teenagers and twentysomethings walk into the Bangladesh team without anyone knowing if they are ready.
Khaled Mashud, the wicketkeeper and former captain, draws the true picture. "Our fate won't improve much if the top players are not appearing in the first-class competition. Four-day games are where you prepare for the challenges of Test cricket and learn to bat for long hours. But that is not happening in our case."
Perhaps Bangladesh is the only country at Test level where the domestic calendar is more a myth than a reality. No-one knows when the next National Cricket League (NCL), the only first-class competition, will kick off. The Dhaka Premier League was not held last season as clubs refused to participate in two Premier Leagues in the same year – that's what the impractical calendar had suggested. From nowhere a corporate cricket league (CCL) came into being as a poor substitute. This season, that CCL turned into a Twenty20 event. Four-day matches are not part of anyone's equation at the moment, it seems.
Often in the past, the first-class competition has been held at a time when the national cricketers were either on tour or were in the preparation camp for a coming series. For the likes of Mohammad Ashraful, Alok Kapali or Hannan Sarkar, first-class experience has only come in the form of Test cricket, and that can be a harsh learning process. Big scores and consistency is a habit that is carried over from domestic level to the Test stage. Bangladeshi batsmen are developing their habits of making thirties, forties and the occasional half-century in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Tests and sadly, that is becoming their limit.
So what can Whatmore do? His role in the Bangladesh set-up is nothing similar to what he had in Sri Lanka. From the start, he has been a mentor, a guide and the captain behind the captain of the team he had inherited. It is almost like coaching an academy side where you have to be a father first and then an instructor. Until recently, they had looked like proceeding towards a goal. But a few tumbles here and there and now not even extended batting sessions or a specialist batting coach can reignite the confidence. Maybe it's time to take a different approach.
At present, Whatmore and his three fellow selectors are dependent on a pool of 20-odd players to choose from. One of the reasons he cannot go beyond those same faces is because he has very little idea about the kind of talent available in the domestic circuit. The different nature of his task here in Bangladesh requires him to watch more local cricket with the eyes of a scout.
From the very beginning, Whatmore has enjoyed the presence of a number of his native Australians as support staff, and they all get along extremely well with the players. But the apprehension has surfaced recently that there has not been enough communication.
A local coach summed up the problem. "Some of the boys can admit to me without hesitation if they have not followed their individual training schedule, but it is not that plain and simple when they talk to the foreign instructors. Many tend to hide their injuries or what they are actually thinking, while some others just can not express themselves properly because of language limitations."
A homegrown assistant coach, someone who has the respect and faith of the players and knows them inside out could work wonders in bridging the gap. Mohammad Salahuddin, a 30-year-old who has guided two unheralded sides to major domestic trophies in the last two seasons, based on predominantly motivational qualities and a wonderful cricket brain, would fit the bill. Salahuddin is also a coach at the Bangladesh Institute of Sports and has worked extensively with the next generation of international stars.
For the moment though, Bangladesh are the excuse for anything negative in international cricket. New Zealand's opener, Mark Richardson, claimed recently that the reason for his failure in the series against the Tigers was due to the poor quality of the opposition! Martin Crowe suggested that Bangladesh should play only against the team ranked immediately above them, while there have been all sorts of two-tier, three-tier theories to undermine the existence of the tenth member of the Test family. On the home front, the media is getting increasingly impatient. "Same old story" was the title of a feature on Bangladesh's latest debacle in one of the dailies, while some sports pages are reportedly contemplating more coverage of the local football scene in future at the expense of cricket.
But there are still the loyal fans who are not prepared to give up hope. Fanatics who fill up the stands even after fasting for the whole day during the month of Ramadan. "This is so unique, a full-house after your team had made 86 in the match before!" exclaimed a BCB official, looking at the packed galleries during the second ODI. "How many more heartbreaks can they take until their patience finally snaps?" That's the kind of energy that drives Bangladesh's cricket and that might yet carry it through the trying times.