The First Time Pt. 2: Bangladesh
Alex Fensome | 11:14am gmt 23 Dec 2008
Bangladesh's accession to the ranks of test cricket was controversial to say the least. Although clearly a strong associate side, they had only once beaten a full member country in an international match, a dead 1999 World Cup game against Pakistan that was shrouded in murky rumours of match-fixing. In addition to that dubious credit, Bangladesh had no organised first-class structure, or even the semblance of one as Zimbabwe did. Before the 1999 World Cup most Bangladeshi cricketers played only 20-over games or, at a stretch, one-day matches. None of the players who took the field in their inaugural test had ever played a five-day match against any opposition, and the few four-day games they played on tours had ended in disaster. Nevertheless, the ICC pressed ahead with their desire to expand the game in this small, poor, horrendously overpopulated nation. In passion alone were Bangladesh worthy of the honour of test cricket; but that passion overwhelmed objections based on realistic assessments of their strength.
The massive concrete bowl of the National Stadium in Dhaka, originally a football ground, was to play host to the inaugural test against India- the nation who had lobbied hardest for Bangladesh's accession. Before the toss, a team of paratroopers skydived into the stadium, trailing the flags of the ten test nations. It was a fitting spectacle for the near-capacity crowd, all of whom were surely apprehensive about what was to follow.
The crowd had reason to be worried. Bangladesh's team was woefully inexperienced, particularly in contrast to the Zimbabweans. Even giving the combined age of each side points to a chasm; Zimbabwe totalled 322 years, Bangladesh just 281. Bangladesh fielded eight players under 30, including 18-year old medium pacer Ranjan Das; Zimbabwe just five. But there was more to it than that. The Bangladeshis had played a mere handful of first-class matches, all of which they had lost. The Zimbabweans had played far more multi-day games as a unit, and had had many more success against test nations in ODIs. Bangladesh had recently toured South Africa, but the trip had been an unmitigated disaster, even in one-day cricket. They were quite simply the least prepared side ever to make the step into the test arena.
That Bangladesh managed a score of 400 in their first innings was therefore nothing short of a miracle. There were helped by the pitch as much as Zimbabwe were, but they were probably facing a stronger Indian side. On that first day Bangladesh demonstrated a mental strength few had credited them with. The innings was led by the 32-year old former captain and number four Aminul Islam, who shared a profitable partnership with the 28-year old Habibul Bashar, batting three. Habibul stroked an impressive 71 off 112 deliveries, and Aminul closed the day on 70* compiled from 213 balls. However, although the reporters could not conceal their delight at the performance, they noted that on occasion both players swiped across the line, and Habibul fell to an ill-judged pull. They also noted that the other main contributor Akram Khan, who made 35, was not someone blessed with much natural technique. This was a foreshadowing of the problems that were to plague Bangladesh after their encouraging start.
On the second day, Aminul extended his score into three figures, earning himself praise and indeed monetary reward from his government. His innings seemed to defy all the pre-match predictions about Bangladeshis. He batted for 535 minutes and faced over three hundred balls for his 145, an effort of concentration worthy of Dave Houghton's example. But the truth was this was a false dawn for Aminul in the test arena; he never threatened to reach these heights again, ending his test career with a lowly average of 21. Compare him to Houghton, who finished up averaging 43 from 22 test matches with four tons, and there is no contest. Coached and raised in a one-day cricket environment, Aminul simply could not repeat this effort of will, because for him it was out of the ordinary. For a man like Houghton, it was simply another day's work.
Like Zimbabwe, Bangladesh's bowlers also performed excellently in their first crack at test cricket. Again, it was an offspinner who did most of the damage, captain Naimur Rahman taking 5-110 from forty overs- indeed, like Traicos he removed Tendulkar and India's captain, in this case Ganguly. At one point India were 190-5, but a recovery was led by Ganguly and Sunil Joshi. Unlike Zimbabwe, Bangladesh were unable to prevent India gaining a first-innings lead, albeit only a small one.
It was now, however, that things fell apart for the new nation. At lunch on the fourth day anything was possible; the pitch was holding up nicely and Bangladesh, should they bat well, had every possibility of a creditable result. But it was not to be. They mustered just 91 runs in just over a session's batting, a collapse that punctured the balloon of confidence they had generated over the preceding three days. There was little or no reason for it. Apart from Habibul, who made 30, all the batsmen fell to poor shot selection, showing a dispiriting lack of mental fortitude and an inability to cope with the short-pitched ball. One by one the Bangladeshis attempted to take the attack to India and one by one they perished. Bangladesh had done exactly what Zimbabwe aimed to avoid in their first test; trying to be too positive; instead of becoming more confident after their first innings as Zimbabwe did, Bangladesh became dangerously overconfident, and this proved their downfall.
Bangladeshi cricket has since become mired in the very faults they demonstrated that day in Dhaka. Though they have produced talented players none of them have yet truly learned the necessary temperament for test cricket. Not one Bangladeshi has been able to grind out an innings in the way Aminul did in that first test, though Shakib al-Hasan has impressed in several tough situations over the last year, and Shariar Nafees briefly threatened to become a quality batsman before throwing his lot in with the ICL. The doubters they did so much to scotch for three days have been proved right; it was the fourth day that revealed the true nature of Bangladeshi cricket. That such a thing happened was a damning indictment of their preparation for the test arena; where Zimbabwe excelled and set themselves up for a decade of competent test performances, Bangladesh began a downward spiral they have yet to pull out of.
Inaugural tests are unique; no nation ever faces more than one. And yet for all the fact they are a special case, to be seen in isolation to the rest of a nation's performances at that level, they do often reveal the deep-seated facts of cricket in a country. Zimbabwe revealed themselves to be a tough unit who made up in professionalism and mentality what they lacked in resources and talent. Bangladesh, such as they have done on many other occasions, showed glimpses of potential that far outstripped anything Zimbabwe could ever hope to possess, but their lack of a suitable cricketing culture betrayed that talent and their lack of mental toughness was shown up on a humiliatingly grand scale, all the more depressing for what had come before their collapse.