Bangladesh seek to rise above controversies
On the first day of training for the Asia Cup, the Bangladesh cricket team was at its mischievous best as the players strode out of the Mirpur dressing-room. Mushfiqur Rahim had planned to surprise Shakib Al Hasan with a painting of the allrounder, complete with signatures of team-mates, drawn by a cousin of the Bangladesh captain who is an art teacher in Bogra. There was a lot of laughter as they made a semi-circle around Shakib and presented him with the image.
It was a rare, and welcome sight for the few watching from the grandstand. In those fleeting minutes were glimpses of the players setting aside all that has been happening to them, around them to make a team-mate smile. Despite some of the tired faces, they all wanted to be in that picture - as their posture, craning their necks, reveals.
The gesture was remarkable given the dark clouds that have surrounded the team over the past two weeks. It emphasised Mushfiqur's ability to bring everyone together, and his sense of timing.
Sometimes it is forgotten that the average age of this group of cricketers is less than 25 and their collective experience doesn't hold a candle to the teams they will face over the next fortnight. The prospect of facing a comparatively well-organised Pakistan, a resurgent Sri Lanka and the wounded Indians in the space of ten days would be daunting for anyone ranked below them and Bangladesh are no different.
Added to all this is the uncertainty surrounding the team ahead of this already tough campaign. Professional sports teams seek to avoid controversy but if you are playing for Bangladesh in the Asia Cup - even if you are a regular in the team - you learn to walk on eggshells at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium.
Mushfiqur was in the dock after voicing his concerns about player payments in the Bangladesh Premier League and had a 24-hour wait before he could confirm he was captain for the tournament. Tamim Iqbal was dropped by the board chief, then asked to prove his fitness (despite being passed fit by the team doctor two days earlier) and then picked again. In the middle of it all, chief selector Akram Khan, who happens to be Tamim's uncle, quit over claims of interference.
While the team was kidding around in Mirpur on March 8, the discarded Mohammad Ashraful sat with a large group of former cricketers in their first bid to rectify a constitutional amendment (awaiting the approval of the National Sports Council) that will keep cricketers out of the Bangladesh Cricket Board as councilors. Previously, fifteen ex-players could be automatic stake-holders of the board but the change of the rule means that now they have to represent an institution. It has stirred former national captains including BCB director Gazi Ashraf Hossain to offer a fight "till the last ball is bowled".
The radical stance of these cricketers, coupled with Mushfiqur's outburst and the Tamim drama and the resignation of his uncle - all this could have fired up the national team, sparked them into unity.
On several previous occasions, they have surprised everyone under the most intense pressure; winning the first game after several cricketers left for the ICL in 2008, winning everything on the tour of the West Indies after the humiliating exit from the 2009 T20 World Cup, crushing New Zealand after losing in England in 2010, beating England after being crushed by West Indies during the 2011 World Cup.
It is no coincidence that, on each of these four occasions, the cricketers were under fire going into the contest. The only difference this time is that the problem is not an on-field issue; even so, the situation may play to their advantage given that this cricket team runs on emotion rather than cold logic.
This squad though looks lop-sided on paper with several batsmen for a few positions and a surfeit of fast bowlers for a tournament that will be played on slow tracks. Shakib would once again be called up to the plate to take up the responsibility while Tamim, Mushfiqur and the returning Mashrafe Mortaza have to prove their worth.
Tamim and Mushfiqur have obvious reasons to hit back with runs but Mashrafe too have the added motivation to prove doubters wrong. A return after eleven months means the same question marks over his wobbly legs which has undergone several surgeries. The latest, a knee operation, could have spelled the end of his career but mental strength, coupled with an encouraging showing in the BPL, have won him back a place in the national team.
Another man whose return depended on a lot of important runs was Jahurul Islam. The compact right-hander from Rajshahi had to endure a long exile from the national setup, broadly explained by those in authority as "bad luck". Imrul Kayes too had to fight hard in domestic cricket to win the Asia Cup spot. For most of them, it would be emotion, once again, that would come before logic.
On match day however, young Mushfiqur has to ensure that the focus is solely on the game. They have the country on their side, many of whom identify with these players. Most of all they can play without the pressure of performance; they are the bottom-ranked team in this tournament - a situation that has suited them well in the past.
Mohammad Isam is senior sports reporter at the Daily Star in Dhaka