Ever since Bangladesh started playing regular international cricket, the batting had been the team’s main weakness. However, regardless of the paltry score it the team might have put up, the Tiger’s bowlers would resist and put up a valiant fight. Bowlers like Khaled Mahmud and Mohammad Rafique could make the opposition work hard to chase even a low score of 185. We only have to remember Bangladesh's memorable win against Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup.
As the years passed, Bangladesh has improved significantly with the bat. All of a sudden scores of 250 are not unusual in the ODIs, and the team can now score enough in their two Test innings to force the opposition to bat more than once. Centuries have become more common place, and Bangladesh now has multiple players boasting averages over 30. But sadly in this time, the quality of bowling has deteriorated; so much so that they cannot even defend 325. Time and time again the batsmen deliver, put runs up on the board with their best efforts, only to have their good work undone by poor bowling and performance on the field. Bangladesh's bowling has sunk to such low levels, that even lower ranked teams like Ireland and Afghanistan would fancy their chances against the Tigers. In fact many Associate level bowlers could actually walk into Bangladesh's team and make it more competitive. The bowlers demonstrate a severe lack of basics and intelligence. Very often they also lack that killer instinct which allows a number 10 batsman to rescue a team from 68-8, or put up last wicket century stand.
What is disturbing and disheartening is the BCB's apathetic stance towards declining bowling standards. Fans do not think twice before taking a swipe at the national team bowlers but the situation at hand requires a deeper look, and answers from BCB, selectors, the coaching personnel and some players.
Pace Bowling at its Lowest
Any Bangladeshi who has watched Afghanistan matches would have done so with some envy. Out of nowhere they have been able to develop a few genuine quicks who make Bangladeshi pace bowlers look like second division cricketers. Many would point to the Afghan's physical stature giving them a natural advantage for pace bowling. But pace and bounce aside, the Afghans were able to swing the ball and bowl in the right areas with great consistency. One must wonder why Bangladesh has failed to produce such bowlers in 14 years of cricket, while Afghanistan has seemed to do it in a matter of a few years.
Shane Jurgensen joined the Bangladesh cricket team in October 2011 as a bowling coach. After being made the head coach in February 2013, it was natural to expect some improvement in bowling. But the of pace bowling has gone from bad to worse in these years. While many might sympathize with the Australian as most Bangladesh's pacers have been suffering from persistent injuries, the way many of them bowl demonstrate severe lack of fundamentals and preparations, something that can no longer excuse the Australian. The quality of Bangladeshi pace bowling has never been great, but it has never been this poor either.
The pace bowling pipeline seems to have emptied by serious inactivity of BCB. Beyond a few names who are in and out with injuries, selectors do not have many choices to play with. Bowlers like Rubel Hossain take their place for granted knowing there is no competition.
The once highly publicized pace and talent hunts (which had yielded some success in the past) have dried up. The only other bowling oriented coach in the BCB payroll is an inexperienced and under-qualified Ranadeb Bose who would not even be the choice for a state team in India. Well known Bangladeshi bowling coach Sarwar Imran seems to have disappeared from the plans of the BCB.
The country lacks an institution to nurture pace bowlers; something that has given a solid platform to India and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka for instance has benefited from its own MRF styled pace academy which has been identifying and grooming pacers from around the country for the last 14 years. The unearthingof bowlers like Malinga, Kulasekera has not been by accident; such bowlers are products of a well organized and maintained system. Right now, even Sri Lankan medium pace all rounde's like Thisira Perera and Angelo Matthews are a better bet than Bangladeshi front line pacers. At present four former national team bowlers led by the iconic Chaminda Vaas are responsible for grooming prospects at the under-9, A Team, and national team levels in Sri Lanka. Understanding the importance of playing surface, Sri Lanka has also developed more pace oriented wickets to encourage fast bowling-something which is also aiding batsmen.
Ever wonder how Zimbabwe have been able to unearth so many decent pace bowlers - Vitori, Chatara, Kyle Jarvis? Zimbabwe runs nationwide bowling hunts and offers contracts to best candidates to train at their High Performance Center. Then guys like Heath Streak take over mentoring them at the academy and national level helping them develop the right set of skills and confidence.
Now compare all this with the work of BCB. It seems like BCB thinks it can pluck out another Mashrafe from thin air. Even Mashrafe had the blessings of Andy Roberts when he started. Who can youngsters like Taskin Ahmed learn from?
Lack of a Strike Pace Bowler
With Mashrafe coming towards the end of his injury plagued career, the Tigers also lack a strike pace bowler. Someone a captain can rely on with the new ball, or to break a partnership, or to bowl in the death or final overs. The brave heart Mashrafe may have had his ups and downs, but whenever fit he has always led from front taking great responsibility. None of Bangladesh's next set of bowlers- Shafiul, Rubel, Robiul, Abul Hasan seem to have what it takes to be that dependable strike bowler. Mushfiqur Rahim goes into every match knowing he would need to bring on a spinner inside ten overs.
It is absolutely essential for Bangladesh to unearth a pacer who can lead the attack; like Heath Streak did for Zimbabwe or Chaminda Vaas did for Sri Lanka. Selectors also have a role to play here. Despite having an excellent Asia Cup two years ago, Nazmul Hossain was repeatedly snubbed by selectors. While the reasoning is not clear, perhaps selectors logic was to have a stronger and quicker bowler like Abul Hasan instead of a medium pacer like Nazmul with a limited repertoire. In contrast, Sri Lanka would never hesitate picking Nuwan Kulasekera to lead the attack, knowing he would give guaranteed ten tight over's, bowl according to the field, circumstances and the captains requirement.
"Friendly" Spin Attack
Bangladesh boasts a dozen slow left arm spinners with impressive first class records. Enamul Haque Jnr has 378 first class scalps, while Elias Sunny has 261. Both average less than 30, have good strike rates, and frequently take five wickets. Although giants in domestic cricket, such players struggle in the international arena against technically competent batsmen and in foreign conditions. A lot of these dismissals in domestic cricket are against right hander's and due to bottom handed batsmen playing across the line in low bounce wickets. Either the batsman gets trapped leg before wicket or gets bowled trying to glance an arm ball. This is also a reason why many left handed batsmen torment Bangladeshi spinners. The number of dismissals through attacking spin bowling is less. Very rarely would one see a Bangladeshi spinner dismiss a batsman with turn or flight. Note Shakib's attacking approach in the early stage of his career
The strategy of the Tiger spinners is straight forward. Bowl in the right areas, get dots, build pressure, force the batsman to try something unusual and get a wicket. While this might have been ok in Pre T20 era, this is no longer a solution with more aggressive batsmen and lesser fielders allowed outside the circle. Perhaps a reason why wickets of these left arm spinners have dried up in recent times. And to avoid getting hit, most bowl a negative line and quicker through the air-something which further reduces the probability of wickets.
Bangladesh needs a transition from a friendly spin attack to a potent one. It is considerably easier for Bangladesh to produce spinners in comparison to pacers. Yet beyond Shakib, Bangladesh does not have a single spinner of world class ability. Even the highly praised Sohag Gazi is slowly realizing the grim reality of international cricket.
BCB has unanswered questions here. Their decision to sign Saqlain Mushtaq as a consultant was a great move. But what benefit has it yielded till date? Sohag Gazi seems to have gone back to square one. Saqlain has been used mainly in tours where his coaching time is reduced with players on the field, traveling etc. In such tours he only gets to work with national level bowlers-that too on limited basis while they also do batting and fielding practice. West Indies on the other hand took a more sensible approach by organizing spin camps for their best prospects from youngsters to national level bowlers. Saqlain had undivided focused attention of all the players. BCB needs to strategically approach how they wish to utilize the former Pakistani spinner; something which even he suggested.
100 days of coaching is by no means enough. Why not appoint a local coach to work on a day to day basis with the national team or academy spinners? Every Bangladeshi spinner from Razzak to Shakib has praised Mohammad Salahuddin for the influence he had on them. In his final days as a player, Mohammad Rafique used to mentor Razzak and Shakib Al Hasan. Why not tap into the expertise of such personnel? Unless BCB thinks the spinners can operate in auto mode and improve by themselves or Shane Jurgensen is the best resource to groom them.
Abdur Razzak has had an excellent run in international cricket, and has done great service to the country. But Razzak is slowly becoming more of a liability than someone who adds experience. With Rafique, Razzak and Shakib-Bangladesh had a quality spin attack. The Tigers never filled the gap left by Rafique, and with Razzak's decline, Shakib is left with a lone battle. Despite having over 200 scalps, Razzak continues to demonstrate lack of maturity and intelligence on the pitch. He keeps repeating the same elementary mistakes which one would never expect from a senior. When a bowler gets hit for a short, wide ball, you would expect him to adjust his line and length in the next. But when he repeats the same thing the following delivery, you know there is something wrong. His poor fielding brings down the entire teams standard, and with the bat he is no better than a number eleven.
It is time the selectors, the coach and captain think about the future of Razzak. It's never too late for someone to reinvent and revitalize ones game. Both Ajmal and Herath developed their bowling into their mid thirties. But Razzak must not think his 200 plus wickets and experience will work as his get out of jail card. There must be no room for underperformers, particularly someone who lets the team down in all three disciplines.
Lack Of A Finisher
Put yourself in the shoes of Mushfiqur Rahim. The opposition needs to score 18 runs in the last two over's with ample wickets in hand. Who do you give the ball to? Or say after picking over half the wickets the team is struggling to break a tail end partnership. Who can you bring on? Angelo Mathews can call upon Malinga, Misbah Ul Haq can call upon Ajmal, but Bangladesh does not have such luxury. Chances are Mushfiq will give the ball to an unpredictable Rubel, a decision which could go either way. Or in a tight situation he could bring on Shakib or Razzak whose orthodox style is easy to muscle over the top. None of Bangladesh's bowlers possess that killer instinct required to break a frustrating partnership, or to get that much needed breakthrough; a reason why someone like Jason Gillespie could go on to score a double hundred.
Time and time again this inability to finish with the ball loses matches for Bangladesh. When Bangladesh seem likely to restrict the opposition to 230, it becomes 280. Or when they seem favorites defending with 30 required from 18 balls, they somehow find a way to throw it.
Bowlers like Malinga, Ajmal owe a lot of their finishing ability to their cool, calm demeanor. It is a natural characteristic or attribute of a player-someone who is brave, bold, and who does not panic and let the situation get the best out of him. The other half is probably result of a lot of practice. Lasith Malinga claims he did not know how to a bowl a yorker until he met Champaka Ramanayake and Rumesh Ratnayake. The two bowling coaches spent a lot of time with Malinga helping him develop his yorkers, slower deliveries and sharp bouncers which were perfected and mastered through a lot of practice and experimentation.
This is where selectors and coaching staff come in play. Like they discovered Nasir Hossain a cool finisher with the bat, they must identify someone who can do it with the ball. Then it's the job of the coaching staff to drill such techniques into their repertoire. Despite knowing Bangladesh's weakness in this area, nothing productive has been done till date. A match can be won or lost in just a couple of overas. Having a good finisher with the ball is almost like an 80-20 solution.
Lack of a Quality Pace Bowling All Rounder
How many times have we seen the Bangladeshi team get their team balance wrong? Sometimes they think surface would help pacers thus select three, only to realize none of them have any effect. They struggle to fill their quota of ten overs forcing part time spinners to bowl more, and they also contribute to a long tail.
Sometimes they decide to do the absolute opposite by picking a spin heavy attack, only to realize an extra seamer might have been more helpful. This is where having a pace bowling all rounder comes in handy. So if they feel the wicket may have something for the quicks, they can select the pace bowling all rounder as the third seamer without compromising batting. If they feel the opposition will struggle against spin, they can pick three frontline spinners with the pace bowling all rounder playing the role of second seamer. Both events allow Bangladesh to increase their depth in batting, something which is essential as batting collapses are frequent.
Currently Bangladesh has Ziaur Rahman and Farhad Reza as their pace bowling all rounders. But neither seem to have earned the confidence of the captain. For instance in the Asia cup match against Pakistan, Mushfiq refused to give an over to Ziaur Rahman, who seemed to be there just to make up the numbers. Mushfiq needs to be questioned for such tactics, but at the same time selectors must keep looking for better candidates for this role. Someone like a Thisira Perera or Elton Chigumbura could really aid the balance of the side.
Missed Catches Lose Matches
It is said a lesser team may not be able to match a stronger one with the bat or ball. But it can certainly beat them with fielding-an art which can actually be mastered with a little bit of hard work as opposed to natural talent. Bangladesh's fielding has never been as great as India, Sri Lanka, but could compete with Pakistan. But now Bangladesh may even struggle to stay on par with Afghanistan. The Tigers have started dropping catches like they are playing associate level cricket. The body language, the fitness, the aggression simply is not there. Sri Lanka for instance can save 20-30 runs simply by diving and making athletic saves in the circle or in the boundary. So a total of 250 seems like a 270-280 because of their ability to save runs. Their aggression in the circle can easily cause panic and prevent opposition from taking quick singles, or converting ones to twos. On top of this they convert half chances by taking outstanding catches or hitting the stumps and running opposition out.
The coaching staff and players need to be questioned strongly for the teams decline in this area. Fingers could also be pointed at BCB. With the team doing fairly well under Julien Fountain, BCB decided not to extend his contract. Instead they hired a lesser known Jason Swift who took fielding standards back by a couple of years. After giving Swift a generous run, BCB decided to hire another Australian Corey Richards. Richards made a good start, before BCB's strange decision to club the batting coaching role in his job description. BCB's 2 in 1 strategy which is probably aimed at saving money is now backfiring. In today's highly specialized game, fielding is a discipline which requires a lot more thinking and emphasis. BCB must hire a batting coach and allow Corey Richards to focus on what he was hired for. Again they must take a leaf from Sri Lankan cricket by bringing back ex cricketers like Aminul Islam, same way Sri Lankans are now benefitting from the likes of Atapattu, Kalpage and Vaas.
The Road Ahead
Time for Bangladesh to really think about how they can improve with the ball and on the field. It is encouraging to see the likes of Mominul and Anamul batting well with responsibility. But their efforts will always be in vain if the Tigers cant back their batting with the ball. Everyone involved from board, selectors, head coach, captain and players must put their thinking caps on and figure out how not to sink further in the field. It is going to be a busy year for Bangladeshi cricket. But until and unless they figure out how to improve in these two areas, cricket will not go anywhere. Afghanistan today, Nepal tomorrow. The world is moving forward, time for Bangladesh to wake up and buckle up.
The author is an avid Bangladesh cricket supporter based out of Colombo. He welcomes feedback and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org