ICC World Cup 2019: Tweaks that transformed the Tigers of Bangladesh
After a comprehensive win against Afghanistan on Monday, whether Bangladesh can chart a new course in World Cup history will depend on their results against Pakistan and India.
It’s like an Asia Cup now, said a well-known Bangladesh journalist wearing a nervous smile moments after Liton Das was brilliantly scooped up at short cover. Bangladesh have generally done well at the Asia Cup. But the goalposts have shifted. Driven by their quarter-final finish in the 2015 World Cup, Bangladesh feel they finally have the team to be ambitious. It’s not a now-or-never scenario but there is a strong undercurrent of belief that Bangladesh must improve on their 2015 finish to justify the emotion, time and money invested on them.
It has taken a long time for expectations to change, 20 years to be exact since that stunning upset against Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup. Much has changed since that historic day at Northampton. Akram Khan, who played in Bangladesh’s first Test against India in 2000, is chairman of Bangladesh’s cricket operations committee now. And Khaled Mahmud, that feisty all-rounder who once epitomised Bangladesh’s never-say-die attitude, is the team manager.
From being a talented but reckless bunch that was capable of staging upsets on any given day, Bangladesh cricket has undergone quite a few shakeups to finally produce a confident team that can beat top sides consistently. Many feel the first of the many churns was sparked after a disastrous 2007 World Cup where Bangladesh had beaten India and South Africa but lost to Ireland. Jamie Siddons took over as coach and immediately took under his wings the senior core of Shakib Al Hasan, Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mashrafe Mortaza. Under his tutelage, Bangladesh’s best batsmen learnt how to channel their talent.
The foreign hand
The results weren’t immediately visible though. In the 2011 World Cup at home, Bangladesh chased 225 to beat England but were shot out for 78 against South Africa. There was a growing feeling that split captaincy would be the best solution since Rahim was not being able to cope with the increasing workload. Mortaza, Bangladesh’s original icon and a tearaway fast bowler who gave his knees to cricket, was chosen to lead the side in shorter formats. It was preceded by Chandika Hathurusingha’s appointment as Bangladesh’s coach in May, 2014. At the time, Hathurusingha was the fourth highest paid coach in the world.
Money was never a problem for the Bangladesh Cricket Board who found new sponsorships every year. This also has to do with the mass connect of cricket even though football ruled the hearts not so long ago. Before turning into a full-fledged football facility, Dhaka’s Bangabandhu National Stadium had hosted several cricket tri-series and Bangladesh’s first Test. Much before that, as capital of East Pakistan, ‘Dacca’, as it was then known, hosted nine Pakistan Tests, including one against India in 1955.
The club structure remains robust, with Abahani Krira Chakra and Mohammedan Sporting still being the most sought after clubs for any domestic cricketer. Every year the Dhaka Premier Division League attracts international players. Kapil Dev, the late Raman Lamba and Arjuna Ranatunga have played there, and so has Yuvraj Singh.
It was this practice of flying in foreigners that probably made overseas coaches such a norm in Bangladesh cricket. Gordon Greenidge was coach when they won the ICC Trophy in 1997 and qualified for the World Cup for the first time. Wasim Jaffer, who recently played for Abahani, is now the batting coach at Bangladesh’s high performance academy. Courtney Walsh’s contribution as bowling coach isn’t just limited to expertise but also the stories he has shared with the team. The Bangladesh Premier League hasn’t yet helped Bangladesh unearth a talent like Jasprit Bumrah but it has allowed domestic cricketers to rub shoulders with international stars.
Hathurusingha’s arrival was significant because finally did Bangladesh have a coach who wasn’t ready to give in to the tantrums of cricketers. And there were quite a few in a country where cricket is a religion and players demi-gods. Few myths needed to be broken. Shakib, their finest all-rounder, copped a few punishments. Equally indisciplined were Sohag Gaji, the rare off-spinner from Bangladesh who had the potential to reach the top, and promising all-rounder Nasir Hossain who had made his Test debut before turning 20. Hathurusingha sent them a message: Shape up or ship out. That set many players straight.
Mortaza, on the other hand, was tasked to not allow success go to their head. Like most other players, Mortaza isn’t an alumnus of the Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishthan (BKSP), the national sports academy. His captaincy was considered to be a successful bid to clamp down on the clout of BKSP players who took the administration for granted. Their talent was never in doubt. But only after Hathurusingha and Mortaza helmed the team did it finally start living to its potential. Another change Hathurusingha brought about was in the attitude towards hosting teams. He implored the Bangladesh board to prepare pitches that suited spinners. They whitewashed Zimbabwe 3-0, drew the solitary Test with India before drawing both Tests against South Africa. But once they beat England and Australia at home Tests, the winning habit had finally kicked in.
2015, turnaround year
That was after 2015 became the turnaround year for Bangladesh cricket. They were beaten by India in the quarter-final but the no-ball controversy involving Rohit Sharma had motivated them to prove a point or two. Like winning ODI series against a big team at home. Within four months, starting April, Bangladesh had blanked Pakistan 3-0 and ruined Saeed Ajmal’s career forever, beaten India 2-1 and bounced back from defeat to win 2-1 against South Africa. Defeating Pakistan gave the team an unprecedented high, given they had found ways to lose to them before this. This was also the time Bangladesh discovered Mustafizur Rahman, a wiry pacer from Satkhira, a district in southwest Bangaldesh near the border with West Bengal, who was gifted with the ability of bowling knuckle balls and cutters.
Even Bangladesh hadn’t realised what they had stumbled upon till Rahman had Indians guessing with his variety. He was a world-class bowler, something Bangladesh was on the lookout for a long time. Mortaza finally had the ingredients to make a fine one-day team. There was already a settled senior core. All the team needed was a responsible performance from one of the juniors. Soumya Sarkar, an old-school bat who came through the ranks extolling the virtues of patience, managed scores of 20, 17, 127*, 54, 34, 40, 27, 88* and 90 in those nine matches involving Pakistan, India and South Africa.
The ball was finally set to roll then. In the period between the previous and current World Cup, Bangladesh have won 34 out of 62 ODIs and lost 25. That’s a win-loss ratio of 1.36 and the confidence that coursed through the team showed in the way Bangladesh set South Africa a 331-run target or successfully chased 321 against West Indies. Poor bowling cost them the Australia match but with a batting as good as this, especially with the kind of form tournament top-scorer Shakib has exhibited, Bangladesh would be slighted with themselves if they don’t make the last-four.