October 8, 2013

Shakib's star burns bright

He dominated the cricket headlines during Bangladesh's 4-0 win over New Zealand in 2010. Today, he dominates the country's landscape

Bangladesh cricket without Shakib Al Hasan today would be like Pakistan cricket without Imran Khan or West Indies without Garry Sobers. Shakib is the biggest star in Bangladesh in any sphere of public life. And like for any celebrity in the subcontinent, the trappings are ever present. There are commercials to shoot, functions to attend and ribbons to cut. And in between are T20 leagues all over the world to play in.

But this month Shakib is going back to the contest that put him on the world stage. In 2010, Bangladesh beat New Zealand 4-0 at home. It could be dismissed as just an ODI series, but it was a moment in Bangladesh cricket when the world sat up and took notice of their ability. There had been victories in the past, most notably against Australia in 2005, but this win said that Bangladesh could not only beat a higher-ranked side, they could do it four times.

In the series Shakib's batting average was 97.70, which included a century and a fifty. His 11 wickets came at 15.90, he took a four-for and his strike rate was 20.10.

Shakib was a big name in Bangladesh cricket even before the New Zealand series. He had an excellent bowling record in Tests, with seven five-wicket hauls, and had crossed the 1000-run mark in 21 Tests, with one hundred. In ODIs he had a similar batting average but he bowled even better. In T20s, he was emerging as a utility player - he still had a way to go with his batting, but bowling-wise he was up there with the best spinners in the world.

Two and a half years since, he remains Bangladesh's go-to guy. In nine Tests in that period, he has averaged 47.35 and picked up 31 wickets, with two five-wicket hauls. In 31 ODIs he has taken 41 wickets and scored 1010 runs at 37.40. He also played an important role in Kolkata Knight Riders' IPL victory in 2012.

As Shakib has risen as a cricketer, so has his status as the country's biggest icon. His wedding last year was telecast live on many TV channels, though none were allowed inside the hotel where it was held. He speaks to the media sparingly, picking and choosing when and whom to speak to, but even those who aren't cricket lovers recognise him from billboards and television ads. His fans wake up at 5am to watch him play in the Caribbean Premier League. Last month, during an event in the presence of the prime minister's son, Shakib sat on the podium, expressionless for most of two hours, only getting up to make a short speech, but all eyes were constantly on him. A few days ago, when he was asked to talk to a few local kids who had done well in the age-group tournaments and pace-bowling camps, Shakib answered questions patiently but could only stay a while, and had to be rushed out when he left, kids chasing him, police chasing the kids.

He is much more than Bangladesh's best batsman and bowler now. His influence on the country's cricket cannot be quantified. Habibul Bashar, Mohammad Rafique, Mashrafe Mortaza, Mohammad Ashraful, and more recently Tamim Iqbal and Mushfiqur Rahim, are all talented and have enjoyed success and public adulation. The pioneers, like Bashar and Rafique, had to tackle much more than just fast bowlers and flashing blades, because Bangladesh were nowhere in international cricket back then. Mashrafe's plethora of injuries meant he never could express himself properly, while Ashraful remained an unfulfilled talent. Tamim and Mushfiqur have time on their sides, but Shakib's stardom has eclipsed theirs, though he started a year after Mushfiqur and only a few months before Tamim.

He hasn't played a lot of cricket ahead of the current New Zealand series. He turned out in the Caribbean Premier League in August, and in one Dhaka Premier League game in September. An injured thumb kept him out, and in 2013 he only featured for Bangladesh on their tour to Zimbabwe, where he looked rusty.

Brendon McCullum recently admitted that New Zealand were ill-prepared ahead of 2010 ODI series in Bangladesh. This time the talk from the New Zealand camp is all about confidence, preparation and revenge, but if New Zealand are to win, they have get past Shakib.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. He tweets here