Dateline: February 23, 2008. Wee hours of the morning.
Friday night (officially, early Saturday morning), I had the rare opportunity to watch greatness unfurl before my very eyes. Bangladesh versus South Africa from Mirpur, Dhaka was supposed to be yet another woeful mismatch. South Africa, a team which had recently destroyed Pakistan (in Pakistan) and New Zealand (who in turn destroyed Bangladesh) at home, were beginning an arduous trip to the subcontinent: 2 Tests in Bangladesh before 3 more in India.
The first day's play saw Bangladesh bat first, and as usual, play overly extravagant strokes en route to an embarrassing total of 192. They barely lasted 50 overs.
And then it began. Greatness.
Shahadat Hossain "Rajib" on his way to career best match figures of 9-97 (March, 2008)
Shahadat Hossain, known by his nickname of Rajib (and to his teammates as "the Don") was the most hyped player in the short history of Bangladeshi cricket. He first rose to the media spotlight during the 2004 Under 19 World Cup in Bangladesh. He was, according to his coach Richard McInnes, "the fastest bowler at the tournament." McInnes was shrewd enough to foresee that his statement would be construed by the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) and fans as a green light to draft Hossain into the national team. "He isn't ready for international cricket," cautioned McInnes. But we didn't really listen.
Fast forward to May 2005, and the 18 year old Hossain was included as one of 6 fast bowlers in Bangladesh's squad to tour England before the 2005 Ashes series. Finally, fans caught a glimpse of the boy legend. At a lanky 6 feet 3 inch height, Hossain displayed all the prototypical characteristics of a genuinely quick bowler: everything from aggression, to facial gestures, to his stare-downs of opposing batsmen.
Hossain made his Test debut at Lords, the home of cricket. Few players, if any at all, had experienced the first time brutalizations as he did. Sharing the new ball with Mashrafee bin Mortaza, Hossain sent down 12 of the most expensive overs you will find in Test cricket. No maidens, no wickets, plenty of no balls, and lots of runs conceded. One hundred and one runs to be exact. His pace was not that great either...he wasn't express; just another medium pacer.
"I don't care about line and length or swing or variation. I just want to bowl fast."
Those were the words that came from Shahadat Hossain's mouth. Many fans thought that, in addition to his drubbing at London, would signal the end of his career. For that is the absolute dumbest thing any bowler can say. Its analogous to an NFL defensive back saying "I don't care about coverage, I just wanna hit the receiver as hard as I can."
Yet luck was on Hossain's side. Injury trouble during the next Test series forced Hossain to start, which he otherwise would not have. His bowling was actually not that bad, hauling in 6 wickets during the course of the series.
He continued to improve all facets of his game, and by taking 5-86 against Sri Lanka at Bogra in 2006, announced his arrival as Mortaza's sidekick in the Bangladesh fast bowling attack.
There are many reasons why Shahadat Hossain is a gem. Firstly, its a known fact, that fast bowlers just don't come around all that often in the subcontinent. And while Pakistan is an exception to that rule, Bangladesh exemplifies it. Secondly, and perhaps most important, Hossain's bowling mechanics yield a very injury resistant bowler. Unlike most of the other quicks around the world, Hossain has only missed one match thus far in his career, and that too because he had a fever, not because of injury. Thirdly, Hossain is a genuinely quick bowler. He will probably never be express, but he already hits the 140 km/h (87 mph) mark consistently and approaches the 90 mph mark on occasion, making him faster than all time greats like Glenn McGrath, Shaun Pollock, and Chaminda Vaas. Fourthly, despite his earlier comments, Hossain has learned and developed at a rather astounding rate.
Just a couple of years ago, he was a guy who bowled fairly quickly, but straight. He had an addiction to the short ball which was punished by the opposition.Â
But what a different bowler Hossain is today. Friday night I watched him tear through the South African tail, en route to figures of 15.3-8-27-6. His 6-27 (wickets-runs conceded) are better stats than Shane Bond, Dale Steyn, or Mohammad Asif have managed so far in their careers. Those figures could have been even more impressive as Hossain had actually trapped Jaques Kallis but withdrew his appeal. Which proves another point.
Unlike cheaters like Rashid Latif, Ross Taylor, Shane Warne or Ricky Ponting, Shahadat Hossain (like most of his teammates) has class. Hossain was probably not sure if he had gotten Kallis, and thus withdrew his appeal to the umpire. Cricinfo had this to say about that particular delivery:
9.1 Shahadat Hossain to Kallis, no run, probes away again, gets one to bend back into the right hander and get Kallis thinking, he manages to defend but very close to the pad, and that gets Shahadat excited but he withdraws his appeal. Replays showed it was pad first, a stronger appeal would have got the umpire thinking as well
Once utterly one-dimentsional, today, in addition to seam and tradition swing, he seems to have grasped the esoteric art of reverse swing.Â
But what exactly is "reverse swing?"
To understand reverse swing, one must understand traditional swing. Swing is lateral (i.e. side to side) movement of the cricket ball as it moves through the air towards a batsman before pitching on the ground. If a ball experiences lateral movement after pitching it is referred to as seam, cut, dip, or shape.
Each innings in a cricket match begins with a brand new cricket ball. The new ball is shiny, smooth, and hard. Shortly after play, the ball will begin to take wear and tear. The bowler and his teammates can be seen polishing the cricket ball against their jerseys. This process, called "shining", selectively "ages" one side of the ball but not the other. As a result, there is a shiny "newer" side of the cricket ball and a worn "older" half of the same ball. The new cricket ball will take swing towards the worn side for the first 15 overs or so (about an hour to an hour and a half). Afterwards, the ball stops swinging and is no longer considered new.
After about 40-50 overs (though sometimes sooner) the ball, which is now referred to as "old", will begin to swing again. However unlike traditional swing, this swing favors the shiny side of the ball. Whereas traditional swing is favored by cold, humid, and cloudy conditions, this new swing is favored by hot, dry, and sunny weather. Because it is so opposite to traditional swing, this new swing is known as "reverse swing."
Reverse swing was probably first done decades ago by accident, and was not understood or even noticed. The first person generally acknowledged to have recognized and mastered reverse swing was the Pakistani fast bowler Sarfraz Nawaz. Nawaz taught his protege, Imran Khan, who in turn taught Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis all about the advanced art of reverse swing.
Shahadat Hossain had an amazing spell of bowling in the first innings, and added 2 more wickets in the second to give him match figures of 8-75. The match will end tonight, and Bangladesh will, barring a miracle, lose. But don't be surprised if Hossain adds to what is already the best single game figure by a Bangladeshi fast bowler.
Update: the next Test
Shahadat Hossain roared back into the reckoning after seemingly being done, dusted, down and out. This was one of the better "fight-back" stories Bangladesh has experienced.
After the heroics of taking 9-97 against South Africa in the first match, the Proteas struck back. They racked up some 400 runs for no loss, and it wasn't until the second new ball had gotten old did Hossain deliver another gem of a spell.
Using reverse swing to his best benefit, Hossain, picked up wickets in three successive overs - spanning just 8 deliveries - to create a buzz. Cricinfo had this to say about the three deliveries:
123.6 Shahadat Hossain to McKenzie, OUT, He has dragged it on. McKenzie falls on the 388th delivery. The reverse swing did the trick. It landed outside off and tilted in with the shiny side, McKenzie tried to chop it to third man, as he has done so successfully the whole innings, but this one reversed in a bit more and caught the inside edge. 514 for 2. Shahadat, after claiming the wicket, went across and congratulated the batsman.Â
125.3 Shahadat Hossain to Amla, OUT, Shahadat and his reverse swing is doing the trick. Another one full and it tails in late, Amla plants his left leg across and tries to bring his bat around it. Too late. Trapped in front.Â
127.1 Shahadat Hossain to Prince, OUT, Another fatal drag! Statutory warning should accompany Shahadat: Don't take a drag! It was just short of length, angling away from Prince who went for a cut but got the inside edge.
Shahadat Hossain ended up with a series haul of 12 wickets from just 3 innings, while the other fast bowler, Mashrafee bin Mortaza went wicketless during the same timespan.
After this series however, Hossain soon lost his way. He struggled heavily against New Zealand at home, was similarly toothless in South Africa later in 2008, and failed to impress in the home series against Sri Lanka. Many fans blamed the new fast bowling coach, Champaka Ramanyake. This allegation became more intriguing last week when Hossain reportedly told Cricinfo he was frustrated with his new bowling action and would revert to his old one. Which brings us to the ongoing Test series against India.
Faced with a new challenge of leading the pace attack for the first time in his career in addition to the doubts surrounding his abilities, Hossain responded like a champion. His first wicket against Gautam Gambhir wasn't all that great, but Hossain's height allowed him to get that extra bit of bounce causing the batsman to top edge through to the keeper.Â
The wicket I will always remember, perhaps one of the best ever bowled by a Bangladeshi bowler, was a searing reverse outswinging yorker that ejected Rahul Dravid's middle stump. Shahadat Hossain was back, and his expletive-laced celebration was proof of how much he needed that performance. Personally, I haven't grown tired of watching the live action replay of that ball over and over again. It was that good, easily the best delivery of the entire match. A delivery even Waqar Younis could envy.
Hossain ended up bagging 5-71, his third five-wicket haul in 37 Test innings. Although he only took 1-53 in the second innings (on a pitch that flattened considerably), he remained hostile and probing. He beat the batsmen on several occasions and impressed with his accurate bowling - long his biggest weakness. Even his bouncer had become much more lethal, and when not fended away uncomfortable, sailed on through to the keeper, rather than being retrieved from the boundary rope.
All in all, Shahadat Hossain was an emphatic presence and led the pace attack with maturity. Just how good the 23 year old will turn out to be remains to be seen, but the potential was never in doubt.